Themes of childbirth and motherhood link four stories in Joanna Kavenna's ambitious second novel. Two are set in present-day London, one in Vienna in 1865, and one in a dystopian future. The present episodes work best: in the first, writer Michael Stone reassesses his relationship with his mother while feeling completely ill at ease at a literary do for his first, poorly reviewed novel. In the second, Brigid Hayes, exhausted and overdue with her second baby at the age of 42, struggles with a toddler son, an irritating mother and encroaching labour. The first shows sensitivity, skilfully capturing creative disillusionment and social discomfort. The second, while displaying great insight into a woman's state of mind throughout the gruelling birth process, also resembles a very long NCT coffee morning.
The 19th-century comes filtered through the stilted prose of Robert von Lucius, a post-Jungian, post-Freudian, post-RD Laingian Victorian. Lucius encounters Ignaz Semmelweiss, a gifted physician whose discovery of a way of eradicating childbirth fever has been derided and ignored. The "massacre of mothers" continues apace, Semmelweiss has gone mad, and now suffers blood-steeped dreams in a brutal madhouse.
In Kavenna's totalitarian 2153, a robotic questioner interrogates prisoners in Dalek tones. Eugenic tyranny is enforced, ensuring the continuation of the species in a harsh post-climate change world. Normal sex and birth are forbidden, men and women are "egg and sperm donors", harvested and sterilised at the age of 18. Children are "progeny of the species", belonging to the state. When one woman, Birgitta, conceives naturally, a group of dissidents escape with her to a remote island. Here, "we settled into a very ancient rhythm of rising with the sun and going to sleep with the dusk, of passing the days collecting food and tending our crops and the evenings singing songs and telling stories.'"
A child is born, miraculous fruit of the closed womb of Birgitta. The haven is smashed, the event dismissed as a collective delusion. '"But I have seen the son," cries Prisoner 730004. Whether or not intentional, this son delusion recalls The God Delusion. The islanders are accused of being members of a "primitive death cult," and assessed as "in need of treatment."
Passionless science, at war with emotion, nature and spirituality, has finally ground religion under its heel. The ruling "Darwinian Protectorate" weeds out heresy. "I cried out in anguish for something I had never known," Prisoner 730004 tries to explain. "And you attached significance to this random twitching of neurons?" queries Dalek-voice.
The book is cleverly constructed and the links between the four stories are not as predictable as might be expected. What it lacks is real characterisations and sense of place. Ideas are bludgeoned into fiction, with a great deal of energy and aplomb, but it isn't moving - and equating science with fascism and bigotry is just silly.
Carol Birch's latest novel is 'Scapegallows' (Virago)Reuse content