Friday 11 July 2014

The Birth of Love by Joanna Kavenna

The Birth of Love contains three intertwining stories that deal with childbirth in different time periods.  In 1885, Dr Semmelweiss is being ridiculed by the medical profession for his suggestion that doctors washing their hands could dramatically lower the rates of childbed fever.  Cast out and pursued, the story finds him in a lunatic asylum, convinced that he is a murderer.  In 2009, Brigid is preparing for the home birth of her second child, hoping for a natural birth.  And in 2135, in a dystopian society, a group of prisoners are on trial for the crime of concealing a pregnancy.

I've been wanting to read The Birth of Love for ages, but I didn't want the depictions of childbirth to put me off before I had my own son, so I kept on delaying it.  And I'm glad I did - Kavenna doesn't shy away from any part of Birgid's experience and her labour is described in extensive detail, taking up roughly one third of the book.  The way it was described was so powerful - I know my own experience of childbirth is fresher than most people's, but I'm sure any woman reading this who has given birth would find themselves relating to Birgid's pain and fear.  I found it quite cathartic to read about birth in such an honest and unflinching way, to read about Birgid's rapidly changing emotions and her struggle to manage the pain in different ways, from her optimistic determination in the early stages, through to her dark relief at intervention in the end.  It felt like an unadornished portrayal of what labour is really like, and in this way I found it reassuring - I'm not the only one who felt like that!  My own labour was actually very similar to Birgid's (although I ended up with forceps rather than a caesarean), and this made it even more powerful to me.

The other two stories were interesting too.  It seems crazy to us that doctors in the past didn't wash their hands and indeed went straight from an autopsy to an internal examination of a woman in labour, but this is what happened, and boy did they fight against hand washing!  The dystopian story was probably the weakest - there was too much in the way of telling rather than showing, and I wanted to know why pregnancy and parenting had come to be seen as so disgusting.  I did like all of the little links between the three stories, as this reminded me a bit of Cloud Atlas, one of my favourite books.

The main flaw that The Birth of Love had was pacing.  All of the stories were slow paced, particularly the Dr Semmelweiss strand, and this made reading the book tedious at times.  It really would have benefited from a good edit, as quite a bit could have been cut out to leave a more fast paced and coherent novel.  I can imagine some readers will be put off by the slow pace of the novel.

On the whole, I really enjoyed The Birth of Love, mainly for Birgid's story.  Childbirth and pregnancy features in a lot of books, films and popular culture,  but rarely is it dealt with honestly.  My high rating of the novel is largely due to this.

Source: Personal copy
First Published: 2010
Score: 4 out of 5


  1. Birth stories fascinate me and I'm curious and a bit put off by this one. Great review. Not sure I'll check it out or not...

    2 Kids and Tired Books

  2. This one has been on my wishlist for ages, but I think I will let it stay there some more. I'm glad to hear that it discusses about birth quite honestly. That's one thing that's reserved for pregnancy books and shied away from in books.

  3. Glad this one worked for you overall. Such a unique book.

  4. I love your review and I'm really glad you put reading the book off until you had Giles (how is he doing, by the way?). I think we are often flooded with highly constructed and fictional portrayals of women giving birth and that is both scary and dangerous. Women screaming, verging on murderous, lots of blood, total lack of control... And never really show, for TV and movies cannot/dare not show it.

  5. I've long wanted to read this book but think I'm going to pass until I have my baby -- am too anxious about giving birth and haven't found pregnancy books reassuring in the slightest.