Joanna Kavenna smoothly travels from past to present to future in ambitious novel.
Depending on your position, childbearing is a stupendous miracle, a persistent hell or “an exercise in optimism” — and at times all and more at once. But in Orange Prize-winning British author Joanna Kavenna’s new novel, women’s eternal predicament (and ensuing issues of parenting and being parented) anchors a slick, ambitious narrative deftly entwined with life’s other complex balancing act: keeping hold of reason and sanity.
The four-part narrative is never mawkish, shifting from past to present to future and back with steady prose and a meticulous design that leaves neither the subtle nor symbolic to chance. Each distinct yet inherently connected section begins on Aug. 15, either in 1865, 2009 or 2156, and is titled after major Tarot cards symbolizing human nature. First is The Moon, representing fear and peril-perfect imagery in an anxious and circuitous letter from insanity scholar Robert von Lucius to an unnamed professor. Lucius begs for insight into interviews with an anonymous patient at Vienna’s Public Asylum, mirroring the true history of Hungarian physician Ignaz Semmelweis, called the “savior of mothers.”
Evoking Semmelweis’ attempt to halt rampant childbed fever helps Kavenna stoke momentum. The next “card” flipped is The Empress, symbolic of Mother Nature; this section is set in London in 2009, when proofreader Brigid Hayes is about to have her second child. Her sections are the most immediate and haunting, submersing readers in the tense see-saw of joy and fear, annoyance and delight accompanying pregnancy (she’s “entirely with child — her body had been colonized,”); parenting (she fears failing her son), and being parented (wishing her own mother would leave her be). Brigid’s eventual labor is so intimately described it imparts a tangible film of exhaustion and elation.
But Brigid is inevitably eclipsed by the neurotic, solitary Hermit Michael Stone, or the Fool born as a man. Michael is across London celebrating another sort of birth — the publication of his first novel. Michael is single and estranged from his family, and the attention makes him vulnerable and pushes him inward, testing the bounds of his sanity — and at times the reader’s patience. Discerning the shimmer of madness only gets more complicated with the unveiling of The Tower, symbolic of ruin, suffering and disaster. In this section, set in 2153 when the world is engaged in a so-called “war against nature” due to climate change and overpopulation, interview transcripts with Prisoner 730004 reveal a future in which women are incapable of giving birth, and questioning the status quo labels one as delusional.
From Kavenna’s protean novel emerges a brilliant whole. But just as Tarot readings inspire thinking about past, present and future paths, The Birth of Love is poised to reveal something inimitable to each individual. But first the characters must digest the meaning of the cards and determine their guidance for the future — which, as Michael articulates, is “the locale of your hope, the place where you deposit your expectations. And your fears, too.”