Just me and you, babe

SHADOW BABY by Margaret Forster Chatto pounds 15.99
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Saint or sinner, two images of the unmarried mother endure in fiction, as in life. The first, an innocent wronged, is prepared to die for the protection of her beloved child. The second is a feckless animal, scattering her bastards without a second glance. And even as science has given women some control over their reproduction, politicians and the tabloid press continue to exploit those images, using either the heroic figure of single motherhood or the mess of one-parent families to suit their ends. Margaret Forster suggests a much more complicated portrait of mothers and unwanted children. Through the interwoven stories of two women separated by time and class, she questions ancient assumptions about the ties of blood and belonging.

The barmaid, Leah Messenger, might have slipped from the pages of a Thomas Hardy novel. Beautiful, innocent and work-worn, she gives birth to Evie in 1887 after being seduced by the son of the big house and cast into an unfriendly world. Her isolation and a growing anger at her entrapment eventually lead her to abandon the child. She marries well, starts a family and turns the key on her past. Years later, when Evie returns to claim her mother's love, Leah's fear and righteousness curdle into implacable hate.

The second strand of the story begins in 1957, when the schoolgirl, Hazel, gives birth to a daughter. The pregnancy is a well-kept secret, the baby only a shadow on the hospital wall as it is whisked away for adoption. Hazel goes home to become a lawyer and eventually marry and have children. The child, Shona, is brought up in Scotland by ageing parents, always out of step with her. News of her adoption comes as a shock and a relief, and Shona sets off for London to study law and hunt for her natural parent. Another cycle of fear and disappointment begins.

At first glance, this looks like classic Margaret Forster territory. Yet the period detail of her wonderful Lady's Maid is missing, as well as the chaotic modern landscapes which her domestic novels describe so well. Instead we are led grimly along the dark tracks of these women's minds, as chapter by chapter each pregnancy, birth, rejection and howl of anguish reverberates on down through the generations. Serious stuff: but without a touch of human warmth or intimate characterisation it is difficult to care very deeply about how each story will be resolved. Indeed, held in such a mechanistic structure, the individuals become types, solitary emblems of suffering and sadness, excluded from hopes of a happy ending.

But why are these females and their daughters so alone and dull? Surely, even in Victorian times, single motherhood did not make a working-class girl untouchable? Or is Forster making a point about the silence and privacy of English life which turns the innocent into victims? That may be true, but having tied her women so tightly into their roles, her free-thinking minor characters appear much more interesting. Evie's exploiters give off a whiff of Dickensian raffishness and the male lovers and husbands, invariably weak and well-meaning, contradict their traditional roles.

For all her book's determinism, Forster seems to find it difficult to reach a conclusion. Even after Leah's showdown and death her story suddenly lurches forward to yet another love child. She is the bridge between these parallel tales, but the connection raises another question. In the end, is this perceptive writer suggesting that a tendency to serial illegitimacy runs in families, rather like wife-beating or schizophrenia? This implies a slippery slope, leading dangerously near the Victorian values which the novel ostensibly sets out to subvert.