This is the kind of book that had me regularly thinking, "Oh, yes, I remember that", or, more often, "How could I have forgotten that?". Yet, the half-unconscious memories evoked were so intensely private that I have never said them out loud to anyone.
But Anne Enright has - to great effect. This is a book about the experience of motherhood - but in a genre all of its own. Motherhood, she observes, is "a great work of imagining", but it happens in the body as much as the mind. So, her account is visceral, at times so explicitly it makes you wince with vicarious pain. It is full of emotion. It occasionally bubbles with infantile rage (her own as well as her baby's). It is lyrical and elegantly written. It is, at times, very, very funny.
It is her personal account of her pregnancies and the birth and early days of her two children. There is a temptation to lift whole quotes from the book because she tells the tale so well. On the seeming never-endingness of pregnancy:
Pregnancy is as old-fashioned as religion, and it never ends. Every moment of my pregnancy lasted for ever. I was pregnant in the autumn, and I was pregnant in the spring. I was pregnant as summer came. I lived like a plant on the window-sill, taking its time, starting to bud. Nothing could hurry this. There was no technology for it: I was the technology - increasingly stupid, increasingly kind, a mystery to myself, to Martin, and to everyone who passed me by.
She evokes the paradoxical public-private pull of pregnancy: "A pregnant woman is public property. I began to feel like a bus with 'Mammy' on the front - and the whole world was clambering on"; "Everyone's unconscious was very close to their mouth"; "Whatever my pregnant body triggered was not social, or political, it was animal and ancient and quite helpless".
Yet, she notes, "my indifference to the world grew vast. I liked things from a distance. I was in the middle of the sweetest, quietest romance". Pregnancy is, she writes, "a non-place, a suspension, a holiday from our fallible and compromised selves", echoing one of the early women psychoanalysts Helena Deutsch's description of the narcissism of pregnancy as "a vacation from the ego".
But it is in her chapter on giving birth that Enright comes into her own. She captures vividly - and hilariously - the subjective physicality of a woman's body literally opening up for the experience of birth. It is like being pulled inside out, she writes. It is like dying. It evokes, in her own phrase, "an appalled sort of wonder".
In the throes of labour, she had to remember the five things her cervix had to do:
It has to come forward, it has to shorten, it has to soften, it has to thin out, it has to open . . . In the reaches of the night I try to remember which ones I have left to do, but I can't recall the order they come in, and there is always, as I press my counting fingers into the sheet, one that I have forgotten. My cervix, my cervix. Is it soft but not short? Is it soft and thin but not yet forward?
But, simultaneously, she manages to comment unsentimentally on her fellow-sufferers. Struggling with her own developing contractions, a very big woman in a dressing-gown stands at the foot of her bed listing her symptoms, "which are many . . . I am trying to be sympathetic, but I think I hate her. She is weakness in the room". In the labour ward, she senses every "shift in mood, or intention, in the women who tended me, with great clarity. It was like being in a painting. Every smile mattered, the way people were arranged in the space, the gestures they made".
No absurdity escapes her. It is time to push: "Martin is invited 'to take a leg' and he politely accepts, 'Oh, thank you'." She precisely evokes, too, the mad euphoria of the days immediately after giving birth:
Of course! It is obvious! I have given birth to a perfect child. I look into the cot and watch for a while. Then I decide that I must have another baby immediately . . . How soon can we do the impossible again? It is now the end of June. With a bit of luck we can start again in the middle of August. We could have another again next May . . . which means I'll have to write that novel in five months . . . to rush for publication late spring, and then, pop, another baby! Perfect. It all fits. I have to ring Martin and tell him this. I pick up the mobile phone . . . and I dial a three. I cancel and try a six. I cancel again. I can't remember our phone number.
As I read this, I recall that I felt just like that (give or take the novel) the day after my own first baby was born. I didn't know whether to laugh or cry at the memory.
You will gather I liked this book very much. Some of the middle sections - the 'Breeder's Guide', rather random observations on burps and buggies, poo and baby-talk - are not quite as arresting as the accounts of the pregnancies and births. She says the pieces were typed fast, in between her baby's naps. Some were assembled later from notes and this, she says, "might account for any wildness of tone". In particular, the chapter on 'Science' ("They'll give people money to study anything these days: gender science, media science, why people in the Western world are mildly irritated with each other all the time now, why men earn more") lacks her characteristic intelligent irony and falls rather flat. But her chapter on 'Time' - our earliest memories, the joy of introducing babies to our own nostalgia for the world - was lyrical and beautiful.
Her final chapter - on a near-brush with death at 16, on her depression as a young woman - seemed, at first, to sit oddly in this book. At the age of 16, when told that the doctor feared (wrongly) she was going to die from lymphatic cancer, the phrase that occurred to her immediately was "home". She had only the vaguest idea why "death" and "home" should, at 16, have been the same thing for her and "both so lovely". But then I re-read an earlier chapter where she writes: "I thought childbirth was a sort of journey that you could send dispatches home from, but of course it is not - it is home. Everywhere else is 'abroad'."
It is as if, with childbirth, everything flipped - her existential location in the world, her orientation in time, her purpose in the world, her discovery of the awful tenderness of life. It seems that she found her way home to the abundance of life:
I didn't, I found, want to die at all, not for a very long time. I have no idea when the shift happened, but it did . . . I want to burst into my life like a bank robber, shouting at my family and each of my friends, 'Nobody is going anywhere, all right? Nobody goes out that door'."
This is a book for every thinking woman who ever had a baby, or will have a baby, or simply wondered what all the fuss was about. And for thinking men? Well, at least for those brave few who would dare to glimpse into the mysterious world of motherhood.
Originally published in The Irish Times.
Posted: 14 August 2004