Review: Still Born by Guadalupe Nettel
A book that takes readers into the lives of two contemporary Mexican women as they bond over their shared attitudes towards motherhood and later as they develop differing views towards it, this is a study of an enduring friendship and an examination of women’s choices and freedoms in a restrictive society
Mexican writer Guadalupe Nettel’s fourth novel Still Born takes readers into the lives of two contemporary women. Laura and Alina form a close bond in their twenties in France over their similar distaste for childbearing. Their paths intersect again their thirties. Now, their views are no longer the same. Laura, who is horrified at the prospect of motherhood, has broken up with her lover, taken the drastic decision to be sterilised, and moved back to Mexico. There, she meets her friend Alina and is shocked to discover that she is now eager to become a mother.
“Just as someone who, without ever having contemplated suicide, allowed themselves to be seduced by the abyss from the top of a skyscraper, I felt the lure of pregnancy,” she says.
Beautifully rendered in English by Rosalind Harvey, Still Born addresses the taboo of being ambivalent to motherhood with an admirable honesty. It evokes the viewpoints of two dissimilar women whose narratives run parallel to each other but whose ideas are rooted in the same spirit. A line in the book suggests that “Motherhood changes one’s existence forever.”
Alina has to deal with a complex pregnancy with the knowledge that her daughter, if born, will not be able to survive due to a rare condition called microlissencephaly. She’s battling to bring this child out into the world fully aware that any moment she could suffer a tremendous loss: “A part of them - undoubtedly the most pragmatic part - told them that growing fond of their daughter, surrendering to an unchecked bond like that between any parent and their little ones, could steer them towards a suffering far too intense, while at the same time, every minute they spent with her strengthened those ties they were so scared of developing.”
Laura, who is working on a thesis, forms an unexpected bond with a troubled neighbourhood household comprising a woman and her young son. The boy is struggling with an aggressive temper directed at his mother after the death of his father. Her strong ideas regarding children and motherhood are put to question when she starts understanding the depth, love and bond of this union.
Several writers including Sheila Heti (Motherhood) and Elena Ferrante (The Lost Daughter) have written exceptionally well about motherhood. Usually, though, writers are overly sentimental and their narratives seem unreal. Thankfully, this book is honest and real with characters behaving in a rational and realistic manner. But this is more than a commentary on contemporary motherhood with Nettel bringing up questions of female choice and freedom in society and presenting women’s struggles both at an intimate level and within Mexican society.
It is also a testament to female friendship. At one point Laura says, “There are beings without whom we simply cannot conceive ourselves in this world. Alina was one of these for me. If she disappeared, a part of me will go with her.” Despite their differing choices and opinions, these women stand by each other and the love between them is evident. “The more we love a person, the more fragile and insecure we feel because of them.”
Still Born does the work of all impressive fiction; it creates conversation and generates ideas about the topics that are not as openly spoken about as they should be.
Hritik Verma is an independent reviewer. He blogs at allayingart.wordpress.com. He is @Hritik38233434 on Twitter and @allayingart on Instagram