Book review / Double visions from a womb with a view

A Skin Diary by John Fuller, Chatto, pounds 9.99

The womb might be thought to be fiction's final frontier. Conceptions are commonplace. Some adventurous authors, most recently Harold Brodkey, have charted a course down the birth canal. Now, taking the novel's quest for novelty to its innermost limits, John Fuller's A Skin Diary features a foetus-eye view of the world.

Displaying an intelligence and sensibility which would astound even the most fanatical pro-Lifer, Fuller's foetus addresses his mother, Mair, throughout the nine-month cycle of her pregnancy, as he develops from "a wink that might still be tiddled" through a "little top-heavy sea-horse" into a recognisable human form. At the same time, he is a privileged observer of the sexual conflict which unfolds around him, when his father, Gruffudd, mistrusting his mother's fidelity, leaves home.

Fuller has rooted his story in a 19th century Welsh farming community, where the chapel influence is all-pervasive. The flinty intensity of his imagery recalls Faulkner. He marries a highly specific sense of period with a mythic drama in which Mair is both Earth Mother (the contours of her body evoking the landscape of the Valleys) and Penelope waiting for the return of her Wanderer. Like the Manichee to which he alludes, Fuller propounds a dualism of male and female, good and evil, and light and dark.

The richest of all these archetypal layers concerns the birth of Christ. Christian imagery abounds: the baby is conceived at Easter and born at Christmas; Mair and Gruffudd are Mary and Joseph; there is even an angel, albeit a primarily figurative one. It soon becomes clear that the foetus' intelligence is no mere literary device but fundamental to the novel's meaning. Who could be a more omniscient narrator than Christ? Like Christ, the foetus inhabits a double time-scale as both the ancient of days and an individual being. Nevertheless, the correspondences with the gospels aren't comprehensive (Gruffudd, unlike Joseph, is the baby's true father). Fuller has no wish to limit Christ to one incarnation. He implies that there is the divine in every birth.

The central image of the novel is the Word made flesh (the foetus is a "baby-bible") - not only the essence of the Christian myth but a pointer to Fuller's own poetic skill. He has fleshed out his story with a succession of richly associative metaphors

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