The Family Way by Tony Parsons

Maybe too much baby
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Tony Parson's new novel - already described as a bestseller on the dustjacket - is about babies. And my God, is it ever about babies. It seems to take place in Babyland. In Babyland, people go through the motions of having jobs, going on holiday, having relationships, but really it's all about babies. If you're a woman you try to have a baby. If you can't get pregnant, you try to. If you're not interested in having a baby, you talk about how you're not interested.

Parsons gives us three sisters with different versions of the baby obsession. Jessica is desperate to get pregnant, but can't. Megan, a trainee doctor, isn't "ready" to have a baby, but gets pregnant after a one-night stand. She contemplates having an abortion but changes her mind in the abortion clinic's waiting room which is "as antiseptic and clinical as a dentist's" (should the waiting room have been grubby? And of course it's clinical; it's a clinic). But as the foetus develops, so does Megan's maternal instinct.

Cat, the older sister, has no desire to be a mother at all. But Parsons doesn't really believe it's possible to be a real woman and not want a baby. The only characters in the novel that he really despises are a mother who leaves her children and a career woman with no maternal instinct. As soon as Cat thinks about babies, she changes her mind: "Without children all you had was now, and reminders of the past." And then when she actually gets to hold one: "When Cat held the baby she felt a physical yearning more powerful than any craving she had ever known."

The men are obsessed as well. They also talk about wanting babies and women wanting babies and about being fathers. This provokes some drastic shifts in tone. Sometimes the men ponder the subject in distinctly laddish style. On the subject of women's biological clocks: "Their bodies were in extra time, their eggs were still hopeful of a penalty shoot-out." Not if they're English eggs, they're not.

Or sometimes the tone becomes loftier, almost orotund. Here a young man witnesses a birth: "And he wondered, what would he tell his daughter about men? How could he prepare her for their lies, their tricks, and their black hearts? Our black hearts."

Much of the writing just has the carelessness of haste. I compiled my own anthology of slapdash similes, such as toddlers in a playground being "as noisy and smooth-skinned as babies" (of course, since they almost are babies). During a premature birth "it seemed that things moved alarmingly fast. Like those movies you see about death row - the sudden mad rush to get the act done and behind them." (All the movies about death row I've seen have been slow and drawn out.) An old woman's smile is "sweet as a child's face on Christmas Day".

All turns out well in the book, for the virtuous at least, because in Babyland all must have babies. Megan, the "idealistic" GP, gets an extra reward from her creator, moving from the Hackney NHS to a private practice in Wimpole Street.

I must confess that I finished the book with a compulsion to read a book, any book, that didn't have babies in it. Robinson Crusoe. The Name of the Rose. The Swimming Pool Library. And suddenly the title The Silence of the Lambs doesn't seem so frightening any more, just rather pleasant and peaceful.

Sean French's new novel, 'Start from Here', is published by Picador. He has four children