A Child of One’s Own by Rachel Bowlby: A study of “unnatural” parenthood

One could say that the Oedipus narrative gave us <em>Wuthering Heights</em> where the Moses story resulted in <em>Jane Eyre</em>; or at least that between them can be found the spectrum of objective and subjective narrative possibilities.

A Child of One’s Own
Rachel Bowlby
Oxford University Press, 256pp, £20

Without wishing to see too much that is analagous between the artistic and the procreative – the latter being found so frequently to be the enemy of the former – one might say that ours is an era in which the prospective parent has an unprecedented degree of authorial control. The erstwhile notion of “family planning” and the subsequent growth of reproductive technology constitute an invitation to shape the life narrative, to rethink, as it were, the concept of inevitability. Whatever forces we once blamed the mystery of ourselves on – fate, God, the simple randomness of biology – the author’s hand is these days more conspicuous. Freud taught us to see ourselves as psychologically the product of our parents and now medicine has extended that patent to our physical being. Increasingly, a person – a baby – is another person’s big idea.

One might ask what inevitability ever did for us, now that it’s gone. One answer might be that it gave common cause to our mistakes, that the sense of ourselves as part of and subject to some grand, mysterious design was socially cohesive in a way that the narrative of “choice” cannot replicate. A parent, these days, is someone who has got what they wanted and can be left alone. What Freud identified as the parent’s narcissistic objectlove is now serviced by culture even before the object is conceived; the faux-eminence of the contemporary child perhaps only reflects the self-regard of those who, more explicitly than ever, see themselves as its maker. Children do not belong to everybody any more and, as well as being uniquely gratified by the child’s capacity for narcissistic supply, the modern parent is isolated when their creation – as creations are apt to do – goes wrong.

Rachel Bowlby’s study of “unnatural” parenthood is predicated on this interesting elision of art and biology and, among other things, reminds us of how much the notion of “character” has suffered at the hands of the modern author-parent, whereby the subjective self is able to extend itself into others without recognising their objectivity. As Bowlby demonstrates, writers have made some preposterous uses of the biological link – or lack of it – but what, for instance, Dickens loses in realism by breaking the subjectivefamilial continuum he gains in reverence for the human spirit. The hermeticism of the family, in the works Bowlby examines, is indeed the enemy of creativity, for the family seeks to conserve itself by excluding others or else by recruiting them into its subjective world. The family “plot” is no plot at all, hence the novelist’s time-honoured decision to introduce an interloper to stir things up.

Again and again, Bowlby shows writers and dramatists breaking the family structure to get a better view of character, with the Oedipal story as the template not – as the post-Freudian misreading goes – for a vision of “plot” as extensive of the self and its desires but rather the reverse. “The baby [Oedipus] is got rid of for fear of what he may do to the parents”; when the link between parent and child is severed, the greater (artistic) mystery of character is born.

Bowlby makes some interesting comparisons between this and the foundling story of Christian culture – that of Moses – and in doing so demonstrates that these two stories lie at the root of two opposing narrative traditions. The Moses story represents the narrative of wish-fulfilment: Moses’s mother abandons him not because she fears or hates him but because she loves him. At great personal risk, she disguises herself as a wet nurse: ergo, his wet nurse turns out to be his “real” mother, whose love is proved, indeed, to be greater than average. One could say that the Oedipus narrative gave us Wuthering Heights where the Moses story resulted in Jane Eyre; or at least that between them can be found the spectrum of objective and subjective narrative possibilities.

Bowlby finds, by her own admission, the parental “subconscious” of such novels as Mansfield Park, Tom Jones and Silas Marner almost the most fascinating thing about them. She also finds some intriguing antecedents to our world of surrogacy, fertility treatment and adoption (and, brilliantly, in the case of Mary, mother of Jesus, to artificial insemination) in plot twists that are, in essence, novelists’ decisions to rupture reality so as better to make it serve their specific emotional, psychological and artistic needs.

This, in a sense, is the most fascinating parallel between literary and procreative culture and it hints at the profound limitations of the novel as a form. How does the novel decide between being the objective book of life and the subjective book of self? In attempting to reconcile the two, the author becomes a kind of God, making nature in his or her image. But in art, at least, reality is corrective. The novel that wanders too far from what we agree to be real – if only psychologically – dismisses itself from our notice. How far the same can be said of reproductive technology (and for how long) is another question. Bowlby believes the corrective power of reality adheres as much in life as in art: “There always is, or was, or will be, another person or institution or social world in the life of the child . . . There is never, once and for all, a child of one’s own.” I hope she’s right.

Increasingly, a person – a baby – is another person’s big idea. Photograph: Julia Margaret Cameron, 1865. Getty Images
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Paula Hawkins: a pulp-feminist follow-up on The Girl on the Train

Hawkins’s writing displays a suspicion of power, especially male power, though she is also eager to identify moments of female collusion in misogyny. 

A couple of years ago, Paula Hawkins, an Oxford graduate with a run of chick-lit novels to her name (well, to her nom de plume Amy Silver), became the latest example of various splashy phenomena. Most obviously, The Girl on the Train, her first thriller, made Hawkins an out-of-nowhere, book-clubtastic, “movie rights gone in a flash” sensation, on the model of E L James. It also made Hawkins, who had formerly worked at the Times, one of those journalist-turned-juggernaut figures, like Robert Harris and Gillian Flynn, a beacon of light to every deadline-haunted hack.

Not so publicised was the kind of writer the book showed Hawkins to be. The Flynn comparisons were perfunctory, the overlap limited to shared use of multiple narrators and that not uncommon word, “girl”. A puff from Stephen King was a little more in tune with Hawkins’s sensibility, a taste for the Gothic intensities that lurk beneath the everyday; but King’s praise – it kept him up all night – still missed her strangest virtue: not the gift for making people turn a lot of pages and feel foggy on the next day’s commute, but for using the mystery thriller form as a back-door polemic, every revelation bringing an adjustment of world-view, every twist of the plot putting a spin on what we thought she thought. More striking than Hawkins’s late success or old career was her emergence as a new practitioner of feminist pulp, the sub-subgenre in which men destroy and women suffer, whose most recent classic had been Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones and whose presiding genius – its queen for fifty years and counting – is the hydra-headed literary combustion engine who usually signs herself Joyce Carol Oates.

Hawkins’s new novel, Into the Water, serves to make things clearer. It enables her readers to sketch a Venn diagram to identify what was incidental to The Girl on the Train – what merely helped to grease the wheels – and what she is obsessed with. Why call it an obsession and not a crutch, a formula, the hardening of habit? Not because what Hawkins is up to conflicts with readability – clearly that isn’t the case – but because she is building novels more intricate, more packed with implication, than readability demands.

Like The Girl on the Train, the new novel centres on a female victim with alleged deficiencies as a woman and mother. The body of Danielle “Nel” Abbott, a writer and photographer, is discovered in the part of a lake known as “the drowning pool”. Nel wasn’t much liked by the other local women. She had ideas above her station. She was a “slattern”. In fact, Nel’s death goes unmourned by everyone except her wild 15-year-old daughter, Lena, who is convinced her mother jumped, but for a good – withheld – reason. To Nel’s unmarried sister, Jules, who ignored a number of phone calls and messages, and who has travelled from London to watch over Lena and identify the body, Nel’s death is the final insult, another way of upsetting her existence.

Into the Water follows its predecessor in applying laser scrutiny to a small patch, but there are signs of growth and greater ambition. Last time the setting was a pair of houses on Blenheim Road, Bucks. Here it is the community of Beckford, a village in or near Northumberland, several hours’ drive from anywhere civilised – “if you consider Newcastle civilised”, in the words of one character. The Girl on the Train had three female narrators describing events, in mildly jagged order, that occurred across a single summer. The new novel features testimony from five characters, including Jules, Lena and the brother of Lena’s dead best friend, and provides close access, in the third person, to another five, including the best friend’s mother. Alongside these ten voices are sections narrated by Jules in 1993 – her experiences carry echoes of Stephen King’s Carrie – as well as passages from Nel’s unfinished manuscript: a photographic history of the Beckford lake called The Drowning Pool, containing a prologue and descriptions of three previous deaths, dating from 1920, 1983 and 1679.

The book isn’t free of cliché – the phrase “out of the woods” is not a reference to the rural setting – and some of Hawkins’s devices border on cheating. At various points a narrator starts talking about a previously shrouded incident soon after it has been revealed elsewhere, as if the characters were in cahoots, conspiring how best to frustrate the reader. There’s much recourse to the undefined event, the word “it”. (What?!) The outsider figure, Detective Sergeant Erin Morgan, is severely restricted in her role as a conduit for backstory. “Have you not seen any background on this?” her superior asks. No, she hasn’t. But Erin “should have been given the files”. Well, she wasn’t.

But most of the time, the novel is plausible and grimly gripping, and Hawkins plays fair. Characters aren’t only lying to us, they are often lying to themselves, or else they’re misinformed. The reader always knows more than any one character but never knows all that a character knows, and Hawkins trusts that the promise of enlightenment is sufficiently seductive to deliver information by the drip.

So, Into the Water is on a par with The Girl on a Train – and of a piece with it, too. Hawkins’s writing displays a suspicion of power, especially male power, though she is also eager to identify moments of female collusion not just in patriarchal structures, but in misogyny. The blame lies with men, who react with violence and psychological abuse to the perceived threat of a woman’s independence. But one of the main products of this mistreatment is that the female characters overlook the role played by such damage when considering other women’s behaviour and subscribe instead to a male-sanctioned narrative of stubborn irrationality or wilful coldness.

Hawkins seems more engaged with the second part of the equation, the way that women see themselves and each other. The radicalism of The Girl on the Train and Into the Water depends partly on the persuasive depiction of figures such as (in Girl) the pathetic drunk and the unrepentant home-wrecker, and in the new novel the money-grabbing mystic, the joyless spinster, the trouble-making man-eater. Then Hawkins exposes the truth behind the cardboard, the way these images have been constructed and perpetuated. Her plotting works as an ambush and also as a rebuke. “You didn’t believe that nonsense, did you?” she seems to be saying. “Oh, you did – and here’s why.”

The effect is less patronising than perhaps it sounds. The rebuke is aimed at the reader not as a citizen but as a participant in the thriller tradition. After all, the victim who deserved it is a familiar character: we have little trouble believing the type. Hawkins has set herself the challenge of adding a third dimension to the dramatis personae bequeathed by Agatha Christie and Raymond Chandler. We are accustomed to characters shifting shape as a story develops. The obvious suspect – twitchy, tattooed, alibi-less – was all along a Good Samaritan; the spotless widow has a cellar full of skulls. Hawkins goes further, showing how narrative presumptions betray unconscious beliefs, upending clichés of other people’s making. You might dismiss her as a killjoy if she wasn’t so addictive. 

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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