Shortlisted for the International Booker Prize 2023, Still Born is the fourth novel by Mexican writer Guadalupe Nettel, and one that stood out for me to read. It was a book that once I turned the very first page, I was unable to put it down. A fiercely compelling narrative around a highly emotional subject, told in a neutral linguistic style that demands attention.
To Be or Not to Be
The story covers a short period in the lives of two independent and career-driven women, Laura and Alina, friends who have initially declared they do not wish to have children.
My friends, for instance, could be divided into two groups of equal size: those who considered relinquishing their freedom and sacrificing themselves for the sake of the species, and those who were prepared to accept the disgrace heaped on them by society and family as long as they could preserve their autonomy. Each one justified their position with arguments of substance. Naturally, I got along better with the second group, which included Alina.
Later, Laura, to ensure pregnancy doesn’t occur accidentally, takes the drastic measure of having her tubes tied, forever removing that risk.
It’s not that kids annoy me altogether. I might even find it entertaining watching them play in the park or tearing each other apart over some toy in the sandpit. They are living examples of how we would be as humans if the rules of etiquette and civility did not exist.
Alina changes her mind, now in a committed relationship, she becomes pregnant.
What follows each of these decisions is not what either woman expects.
Of Fledglings and Changelings
Laura finds herself increasingly involved with the care and in the company of her depressed neighbour’s son, surprised by the awakening of a protective and nurturing aspect.
Alina is given all kinds of dire expectations from medical specialists who pronounce on her unborn baby, a genetic condition they say will not allow it to live. This causes her and her partner great distress, without reckoning on the will of a tiny life-form that desires against all prediction and preparation otherwise – to exist.
There is a word to describe someone who loses their spouse, and a word for children who are left without parents. There is no word, however, for a parent who loses their child.
The descriptions of the medical encounters are delivered in such a black and white, scientific manner, that we feel profoundly that which is unspoken; the confusion and emotional turmoil of two people who should be feeling ecstatic, being crushed by words delivered as if they were already true. Devastation. Probabilities delivered as facts. In hindsight, lies.
The style of language employed by the writer, in mimicry to the attitudes of the medical staff is neutral, impersonal. Presented as objective, it avoids any personal opinion or emotion. Doctors. Highly trained in precise linguistic delivery, the reader experiences acutely how inhumane it is.
The narrative is so straightforwardly delivered and was so familiar to something I have experienced first-hand, that it felt like I was reading nonfiction. I am sure that any woman who has spent weeks in a post-natal ward will read this and feel a similar sense of deja-vu. I am sure there must be a personal experience(s) wrapped behind this text somewhere.
Meanwhile, outside Laura’s apartment a pair of pigeons with two eggs in their nest (a refuge she tried to destroy without success), appear to have been subject to a brood parasite.
Brood parasitic birds such as the cuckoo, lay their eggs in the nests of others, sparing themselves the inconvenience of rearing their own young.
Alina too brings in a young woman as a nanny to help with the needs of her newborn daughter, a woman whose role at times usurps the natural mother, giving rise to both appreciation and resentment.
It is a story of the complexity of birthing and raising offspring and the unconventionality that certain circumstances bring about, that can potentially create hybrid parenting situations, where one steps in for the other. It also highlights the little explored experience of a pregnancy that doesn’t follow expected patterns, that delivers an anomaly, something few imagine or are ever prepared for.
Maternal Instinct & Survival
Choosing Laura as the narrator of the story, one who is often at a distance from the more turbulent and harrowing events that Alina is going through, is another way that the author softens the impact of her experience. We are not close enough to be brought down by it and the urgency of her own situation, from which she is also one step removed, keeps the reader from dwelling too long on any on situation. It is like the maternal, survival instinct. The mother keeps busy and active to avoid the slippery slopes of sadness or despair.
I found this novel stunning, shocking, brilliant and in many ways familiar. It was a riveting read, a visceral encounter of all that surrounds the decision or not to become a mother, a carer and how the most insistent of intentions can mould, evolve and change according to our nature and circumstances.
Guadalupe Nettel, Author
Guadalupe Nettel was born in Mexico and grew up ‘between Mexico and France’.
She is the author of the international award-winning novels The Body Where I Was Born (2011), After the Winter (2014, Herralde Novel Prize) and Still Born (2020). She has also written three collections of short stories. Nettel’s work has been translated into more than 15 languages and has appeared in publications such as Granta, the White Review, El País, the New York Times, La Repubblica and La Stampa. She currently lives in Mexico City.
Rosalind Harvey is a literary translator and educator from Bristol, now based in Coventry in the West Midlands, UK.
‘Many demands weigh on mothers. They are always compared to an unattainable stereotype, one that has made women feel inadequate. Not to mention those who decide to remain childless, who are rarely represented in literature up to now. To me, Still Born is a novel which affirms female choices and which challenges patriarchal ideas of motherhood and maternal instinct.
‘I would like this novel to help readers realise that human diversity – especially that of children with neurological conditions and women of all kinds – is always beautiful and interesting and that there is no reason to fear or reject it.’ Guadalupe Nettel
Hi Claire 🌺
I absolutely loved this novel, I also highly recommend it.
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Thanks for your review Claire. I liked your analysis of the objective scientific language of the medics contrasting with the emotional turmoil of the parents, and also Akins’s experience being narrated by Laura being a kind of distancing device. I felt at times in these parts it was almost as if Laura relating her friend’s pain was a kind of overlaying of their experiences, as if she was speaking for her friend, explaining her to us, maybe helping her in some way? I can’t quite put my finger on it but it was some sort of convergence of the two characters.
Thus sounds a must-read, if a difficult one. I’ve just reserved it at the library.
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Yay, they have it then! I found it a riveting read.
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Lovely review, Claire, and I really like the way you capture your personal responses to this book, which are beautifully expressed. It’s a fascinating subject, and I really admire the fact that Nettel is exploring some of the unexpected developments that can happen during pregnancy and the early stages of motherhood, even though I wasn’t quite sold on the novel as a whole.
There’s an interesting interview with Nettel on the Booker Prize website, in which she talks about the inspiration behind Alina’s story (based on the experiences of one of her friends). I think you’ve probably seen it as your closing quote is from the same interview, but here’s the link in case others are interested, too. 🙂
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Thank you for your kind words Jacqui. For me it was like reading fiction with a non-fiction element embedded in it, and due to the familiarity of that kind of experience those passages relati g to Alina’s experience I found gripping and at the same time I was asking myself how it had been written in such a manner, with such neutrality. I couldn’t really analyse it like an ordinary novel, because it was such a unique experience reading it.
I did go looking after I’d written the review for what the inspiration might have been and I did find that reference (thank you for including it here) but I decided to leave the review as is, given I’d read it without knowing.
What an act of friendship and honour, to take her friends experience and create such a work. It’s wonderful that the shortlisting means it will be more widely read.
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