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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.”
The more things change, the more they stay the same. A few decades under your belt and regular glances at news headlines reveal that truth. Even brief immersion in Jordan Goodman’s new book proves it as well; he has written an utterly thorough resurrection of turn-of-the-century Peruvian rubber-trade atrocities.
Goodman’s engrossing narrative breathes life into meticulous research on circumstances surrounding the reluctant, Irish-born British consul Roger Casement’s 1912 report on the treatment of Indians and Barbadian citizens in the Putumayo River region of the then-Peruvian Amazon (now part of Colombia). He transports us to the Andes, when two American adventurers cross into Amazonia and then are crossed by the rich, crafty merchant Jose César Arana, president of the Peruvian Amazon Co. They soon learn Arana controls the Putumayo and virtually the country, deriving wealth and connections from systematic enslavement of native Indians forced to harvest wild rubber for export.
Goodman encapsulates the issue well: “The problem in the Putumayo, as in the Congo, was quite simply forced labor.” Even though the world had recently confronted King Leopold’s terror there, before the first mention of Arana’s transgressions, we remained blind to the worse “crimes against humanity” (Casement’s term) playing out in Peru. But once Arana’s company went public in Britain, and officials learned that indentured laborers from the British colony of Barbados were involved, Britain launched an official investigation headed up by Casement.
The book carefully tracks that process, while Goodman motors the pace and stokes suspense with cliffhanger chapter endings and a dramatic courtroom trial. Precise, contextual description enlivens historical record, such as the particulars of a meeting place: “[A] roomy, Gothic-looking room, with two full-length windows overlooking the Thames on one side and an enormous fireplace on the other.”
Like Casement, Goodman at times “let the men tell their own stories, sometimes he presented their stories in the form of narratives.” But whereas Casement mixed narrative and “near-verbatim conversations,” Goodman combines his conjuring of place and time, peppered with impressive quotes of voices recorded in primary sources.
The highlight of the book is definitely Casement’s report and protracted fight for Indian human rights, but The Devil and Mr. Casement is delicately presented less as a tale of atrocities than as one of all-too-familiar corporate greed, diplomatic red tape, conflicting politics and the shifting influence of the West in South America. The resurrection of Casement’s story subtly but powerfully reminds us that we don’t always learn quickly enough from mistakes. All we can do, Goodman seems to hint, is continue to tell such stories so that they remain, like this one, as real today as they were more than a century ago.
Published 3/28/10 in the Miami Herald