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‘Motherhood has always been very porous’ [book review]

Still Born by Guadalupe Nettel, translated by Rosalind Harvey

I first came to the work of Mexican writer Guadalupe Nettel through Bezoar, a collection of short stories as memorable as it is slender, filled with sharp, unsettling observations on the human condition. A brief encounter it may have been, but perhaps for that very reason I was intrigued to see how Nettel approaches longer fiction, this time in her fourth novel, Still Born, recently translated into English by Rosalind Harvey. The experience did not disappoint: Still Born is a deeply compelling novel, imbued with the same butterfly touch as Bezoar yet able to delve much further into complex questions around motherhood and friendship. Nettel once again displays her keen eye for human behaviour and a precise awareness of language, which finds expression in Rosalind Harvey’s meticulous translation.

Cover image Still Born

The premise of Still Born seems relatively straightforward: Laura and Alina are close friends throughout their twenties and into their thirties, living for a time in Paris and then back home in Mexico City, united in their outlook on life, which includes the decision not to have children. Both are committed to pursuing a fulfilling career – though Laura’s unsung ability to procrastinate while writing her thesis is, like many of her character traits, charmingly believable – and the relationships they fall in and out of are unspectacular, certainly nothing compared to the strength of their friendship. Then, however, things begin to change. Feeling scarred by a recent break-up and under increasing social pressure to settle down and have a family, Laura decides to have her ‘tubes tied’, while Alina meets Aurelio and, despite their slightly rocky relationship, falls slowly but steadily in love with the idea of being a mother. A once-shared point of view threatens to become an insurmountable obstacle, making Laura – who narrates the novel – briefly question the future of their friendship.

If at first Still Born appears to be about this – differing attitudes to motherhood and childlessness, and how these are presented and negotiated in society – it soon takes a surprising turn, moving into even more emotionally gripping territory. After concerns about conceiving, Alina and Aurelio fall pregnant, only to be told several months in that their daughter, Inés, has microlissencephaly, a rare brain disorder that means she will die as soon as she is born. The heartbreak involved in their decision to carry the pregnancy to term is devastating, transmitted through Nettel’s quiet, clear-cut prose, yet what happens after Inés is born is more unexpected still. To write about it in detail would be to spoil this thread of the story, but suffice it to say that Still Born is its own brand of page-turner – once hooked, it is difficult not to care deeply about the fates of its characters.

As Laura steps in to support her desperate friend – ill equipped as she sometimes feels herself, she has a clear-sighted understanding of the enormous task facing her, musing that while society recognises orphans and widows, a parent who has lost a child is ‘something so feared, so unacceptable, that we have chosen not to name it’ – she strikes up her own relationship with a child, the young son of her next-door neighbour. For some time, she only hears Nico through the thin walls, flying into violent rages against his mother, but when she befriends the pair she finds herself magnetically drawn into their complex back story, and what look suspiciously like maternal instincts begin to rise to the surface.

While Laura’s tone is bright, incisive, balancing self-deprecating statements with an occasional enchanting lack of self-awareness, it also contains the calm intelligence Nettel brings to her writing, a wisdom that runs beneath the carefully arranged surface of her prose. The two main strands of the novel are interwoven with other stories: Laura’s fraught relationship with her own mother, an ongoing process of discovery; a nanny, unable herself to have children, engaged to look after a sick infant; the pigeons that come to roost on Laura’s balcony and unwittingly incubate a cuckoo’s egg. This last is, of course, highly symbolic, underpinning one of the novel’s central questions: what makes a mother, and which limits – if any – are placed on the children we can love?

As a friend of Alina’s later pronounces, ‘motherhood has always been very porous’, a statement that Still Born both supports and refutes, looking as it does at individual circumstances, allowing many women to be mothers in a less-than-classic sense, but still drawing boundaries between their different experiences. Perhaps Laura’s down-to-earth way of looking at it – it is her novel, after all – is more appropriate: ‘I wasn’t even sure I could say that normal mothers existed’. In Still Born, they certainly don’t, but this is the fundamental tenet on which the novel seems based. Uniqueness is key here; each mother has her own way of living motherhood.

Where Bezoar was laced with surrealist elements, it is the reality of Still Born that keeps us reading, forcing open the door to little-asked questions and providing space to confront issues that are often swept aside. Guadalupe Nettel has crafted an intimate portrait of several different women in a fashion that feels true to life, allowing as much space for ambivalence and ambiguity as she does for fierce love and heartbreak. A frank exploration of motherhood as both social concept and personal experience, Still Born is wise and multi-storyed, a novel framed within tight, lucid prose, yet infinitely generous in the expanse of what it offers.

Still Born by Guadalupe Nettel, translated from the Spanish by Rosalind Harvey, is published by Fitzcarraldo Editions. Many thanks to the publisher and NetGalley for so kindly providing a digital review copy.


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