Still Born, the fourth novel by the critically-acclaimed Mexican writer Guadalupe Nettel, is an intriguing book. Recently longlisted for the International Booker Prize, the novel explores various aspects of motherhood – specifically, ambivalence towards the prospect of becoming a mother and what can happen when those feelings change – in candid, sensitive ways.
The novel takes as its focus two close friends, Laura (who acts as narrator) and Alina, both in their early to mid-thirties. Having first met in their twenties while studying/working in Paris, the two women now find themselves back in their home country of Mexico for different reasons. Both women had initially resisted motherhood as it would have restricted their career prospects and freedoms, but now the situation has changed. Alina and her husband, Aurelio, have been trying to have a baby for the past year without success and are about to embark on fertility treatment in the hope of a positive result. While at first, Laura is unsettled by the prospect of her friend joining the ranks of ‘zombie-like’ mothers ‘with no life of their own’, she eventually comes around to the idea, especially when Alina finally becomes pregnant.
Nettel touches on the wide range of responses to pregnancy and motherhood here, particularly among women. It’s a remarkably honest and nuanced treatment of the subject, which is refreshing to see.
A pregnancy changes many things indeed, including the connections we have with people: the friends who had decided not to have children now looked at her [Alina] differently, as if she were the carrier of a transmittable disease. The ones who did want them and could see their time running out, meanwhile, displayed towards her an admiration tinged with envy. I have no idea if any of them, aside from me, felt genuinely happy for her. (p. 35)
Initially, everything seems to be progressing well with Alina’s pregnancy; but at seven months, a scan reveals that the unborn baby’s brain is severely undeveloped, and the couple must come to terms with the pronouncement that their child, already named Inés, will die when separated from its mother at birth. In short, Inés’ brain will be incapable of carrying out all the normal autonomous bodily functions required to sustain life; the only thing keeping her alive right now is Alina. Moreover, Alina is strongly advised to carry the baby to term to maximise her chances of a successful pregnancy in the future, despite the unwavering predictions that Inés will die at birth.
There is a word to describe someone who loses their spouse, and a word for children who are left without parents. There is no word, however, for a parent who loses their child. Unlike previous centuries in which child mortality was very high, it’s not normal for this to occur in our time. It is something so feared, so unacceptable, that we have chosen not to name it. (p. 68)
However, when Inés is born, she defies the doctors’ expectations by surviving, albeit with severe brain damage, limiting her future development and ability to live an independent life. The baby’s condition is so rare that no one can predict how long she will live. Consequently, Alina and Aurelio must face the prospect of never knowing whether each day will be their baby’s last. It’s a situation that accentuates just how tenuous and fragile our lives can be, how any of us could die at any moment, in an accident or by a freak of nature. Inevitably, the situation triggers all sorts of emotions in the couple, especially Alina. She feels angry towards the doctors who told her to prepare for her baby’s death – the same doctors who now insist that Inés cannot see or hear anything, even though she seems to respond to various sounds and environments in the couple’s home.
Alongside Alina’s story, the novel also follows Laura as she becomes increasingly involved with her neighbours – a depressed single mother, Doris, and her troublesome son, Nicolás, whose outbursts can be heard through the paper-thin walls. Although Laura has undergone a sterilisation procedure to protect herself from becoming pregnant, she finds herself acting as a kind of substitute mother to Nicolás when his mother is too ill to provide proper care.
There is a lot going on in this novel (possibly too much?), with Nettel adding other reflections on motherhood through the somewhat strained relationship between Laura and her mother.
We daughters have a tendency to see in our mother’s mistakes the source of all our problems, and our mothers tend to consider our defects as proof of a possible failure. So as to avoid conflict, I have, over the past few years, opted to not completely reveal what I am thinking, to hide my fondnesses and fears, becoming as unreadable as possible to escape the knife-edge of her comments… (p. 150)
Moreover, Alina feels somewhat undermined in her role as Inés’ mother when she hires an uber-efficient nanny, Marlene, who becomes very attached to the little girl, experiencing all the joys of seeing her progress and develop without the burden of having long-term responsibility for her care.
There’s also an interesting parallel between a family of pigeons nesting on the balcony of Laura’s flat and the other aspects of motherhood Nettel explores in the novel. Like Alina and Aurelio, the pigeons must deal with an unexpected tragedy when one of the eggs they have been nurturing disappears from their nest.
They were perched on the nest, cooing at a volume that sounded louder than usual. Were they pining for the presence of the other egg? Did they experience its disappearance as a painful loss? Or was it something for which pigeons and other creatures are prepared, while human beings simply cannot tolerate it? (p. 70)
Once again, Nettel adds another dimension to the narrative here, touching on themes of brood parasitism, a practice whereby birds such as cuckoos pass the responsibility for raising their offspring onto others by laying their eggs in another bird’s nest.
While I really liked the first half of this novel and Nettel’s cool, quietly compelling prose style throughout, the second half seemed somewhat less focused and clear to me. Moreover, Nettel introduces something at the halfway point that appears to be setting up a moral dilemma for Alina, offering her a possible way out if coping with baby Inés proves too much; however, this element remains dormant for the remainder of the book. Still, the author is to be commended for tackling some difficult aspects of motherhood with tenderness, openness and sensitivity. It’s an interesting exploration of how our attitudes to having children can change over time, what happens when a pregnancy throws up unexpected, life-threatening challenges, and how we manage to cope (or not) with the uncertainty this presents.
I’ll finish with a final quote which captures something of the novel’s essence for me.
‘…We have the children that we have, not the ones we imagined we’d have, or the ones we’d have liked, and they’re the ones we end up having to contend with.’ (p. 189)
Still Born is published by Fitzcarraldo Editions; my thanks to the publishers and the Independent Alliance for kindly providing a reading copy.