‘Still Born’ by Guadalupe Nettel (Review)

It’s always nice to find books you weren’t expecting in your letter box, particularly when they’re from a publisher whose work you generally appreciate, and today’s choice is a novel that was kind of on my radar, but whose arrival nevertheless came as a pleasant surprise.  It’s a book that takes us off to Mexico, where we’ll be taking a look at childbirth, motherhood and family, with the writer carefully showing us that there are many ways a family can develop, even when you weren’t really expecting to have one.

*A word of warning before we start: I found this book slightly difficult to review without revealing important elements of the plot, so let me be loud and clear – SPOILERS AHEAD!

*****
Guadalupe Nettel’s Still Born (translated by Rosalind Harvey, review copy courtesy of Fitzcarraldo Editions and Australian distributor Allen & Unwin) introduces us to Laura, a Mexican woman who has long decided that hers will be a life without children.  After making the life-changing decision to have her tubes tied, her long-term relationship breaks down, leaving her to live alone.  Once a globetrotter, she’s now happily working on her PhD thesis and catching up with friends, mostly those without kids.

A turning point in her life comes when her best friend, Alina, becomes pregnant and receives shocking news about the child, learning that it’s unlikely to live long past the birth.  All Laura can do is be there for her friend, who is struggling to come to terms with the news:

Above all, she felt afraid.  But how can we escape from something we are afraid of when we are carrying it within us?
p.72 (Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2022)

Meanwhile, Laura also finds herself in an unexpected position, when she becomes close to a single mother and her son, who live across the hall from her.  Despite herself, she gets drawn into their problems and as it turns out, even though she’s turned her back on having kids, there’s still a maternal instinct there inside, just waiting to be aroused…

Still Born is my second Nettel book, and where the first, The Body Where I Was Born, wasn’t really for me (thanks in part to some poor editing and a slightly clumsy ending), I found this one much more to my liking.  It’s a well-paced, enjoyable story examining the concept of motherhood from several angles, often taking surprising turns.  While told by Laura, Still Born often focuses on Alina and her daughter.  Although pre-birth scans predicted that the baby would die soon after birth because of an underdeveloped brain, baby Inés proves to be a fighter, and Laura and her partner, Aurelio, are able to take her home.  Yet what should be a happy time is simply overwhelming, and with the prospect of her child’s death always hanging over her, Alina struggles to cope, with several major consequences.

Laura herself spends much of her time helping Alina and becoming a surrogate mother for Nicolás, whose actual mother, Doris, is housebound (often bedbound) through bereavement grief and trauma.  She eventually confesses to Laura her struggle to raise her son alone:

He eats up all my energy.  It’s as if he needs to suck my life force in order to grow.  I know that I love him with all my heart, that he matters more than anything else in the world to me, but it’s been days since I can remember what that love feels like.  All I feel is worn out by his rages and his constant rudeness.  Sometimes I tell myself I’d be better off if I hadn’t had him.  It’s awful, don’t you think?  Normal mothers don’t think those kinds of things, do they? (p.132)

Here Laura again experiences the downsides of having kids, but for the first time she also sees the positives as she becomes closer to Nicolás and Doris, unable to draw a line between herself and her neighbours as she would have done in the past.

Well-crafted, the novel ties these stories together with a couple of minor strands (Laura’s at-times tense relationship with her own mother, the pigeons on her balcony and the chick that looks slightly wrong…) to explore the idea of motherhood and families.  The story flows in a number of short chapters, mostly in a first-person monologue, and Harvey does excellent work in keeping the distinction between the different styles.  Laura’s lucid, narrative voice is in contrast with the conversations, and there’s also an interesting choice of Alina’s story being told in a second-hand manner, as if Laura is reporting to the reader what she’s told.  It’s a technique that could be jarring, but it works well here.

Over the course of the novel, an idea slowly develops which is identified later on, namely that of ‘brood parasitism’.  Laura realises that it’s what’s happened with the pigeons, but there are also elements of this in the human relationships.  There’s certainly a hint of raising someone else’s chick in the way Nicolás is left to Laura’s care, and another important aspect to the second half of the novel is the uneasy tension between Alina and Marlene, the attractive super-nanny who caters to Inés’ every need.  What makes the book work, though, is the way all concerned do their best to keep things together and make sure everyone is happy.

It’s certainly not the first novel to explore relationships and stories that fall outside societal norms, but Still Born does it very well, making for intriguing reading, a book I raced through, and even the title has more to it than meets the eye.  In the original Spanish, the novel is called La hija única, or ‘The only (feminine) child’, and there are at least four examples of only children here (if we include the pigeon!).  The English takes a different tack, hinting at a sadness to come, yet if we examine the words carefully, the space in ‘Still Born’ suggests something else.  Yes, there may be problems ahead, but that’s something that can be dealt with when they arrive.  What matters is that we’re here now, so it’s up to us to make the best of the life we’ve got and not grieve over what might have been.

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4 thoughts on “‘Still Born’ by Guadalupe Nettel (Review)

    1. Kaggsy – It does sound that way, and there are some quite distressing turns, but surprisingly, it turns out to be quite an optimistic and uplifting work overall 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  1. I liked the way to two stories were combined – I thought this was well done when it could so easily have felt clumsy. Laura’s relationship with her neighbour’s son also felt credible. The only criticism I have is that Alina’s husband is a bit of a non-character.

    Like

    1. Grant – Yes, all nicely done. As for the husband, this was very much a book about women, so I’m not surprised his role was very much a minor one…

      Like

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