Not long ago, in one of those newspaper round-ups of summer reading, I came upon some literary recommendations for the beach from Mariella Frostrup, presenter of Radio 4's Open Book. They were not exactly dispassionate: being pregnant, she would be taking What to Expect When You're Expecting away with her on holiday. It had become her bible, she said.
I confess that I was shocked. If anyone was looking for proof that motherhood renders women mentally incompetent, here, I felt, they had it. Of all the pregnancy guides, to tout the most sanctimonious, the most frighteningly . . . American! And another thing: has Frostrup not heard of "mum lit"? I admit that it doesn't sound very enticing (in the United States, they call it "mommy lit", which I think is worse), but had she not encountered, in her days at the Open Book studio, any of the multifarious attempts by female writers to articulate the truth of the experience of motherhood?
Most women go through a guide-reading phase in pregnancy. I once complained to the journalist and seasoned mum literatus Maureen Freely about what I felt to be a dearth of serious writing on the subject of motherhood. She laughed. Oh, everybody always thinks that, she replied, then they go and write the same books all over again. We're an ignorant lot, we mothers, but we are in the mood to deny, too: to refute the non-individuated fact of our biological destiny, on which it seems the self, the soul, has never succeeded in making its mark. How can there be so many mothers in the world but so little sense of what it might be to become one?
"Why don't mothers pick up a pen?" demands the Irish novelist Anne Enright, causing mild offence to those of us who have done, at certain physical and mental peril. The answer is that when mothers speak, most of us do not listen. It is a skill acquired early in life. To become a mother is to learn a whole language - to relearn it, perhaps, as it was the tongue to which we were born - and hence gain entrance to a forgotten world of comprehension.
Making Babies has much wit and force of personality to recommend it, though Enright does not entirely succeed in overcoming the deafness. If women want to "civilise" motherhood, to furbish it up to modern standards, we should perhaps learn to integrate it a little more into our understanding of what we are. As it stands, motherhood is a sort of wilderness through which each woman hacks her way, part martyr, part pioneer; a turn of events from which some women derive feelings of heroism, while others experience a sense of exile from the world they knew. However, I am no longer sure how much it helps to give expression to these feelings without breaking through their subjectivity, because no matter how much your consciousness strains around the physical fact of reproduction, it cannot contain it.
Enright's narrative is near-sighted. In her description of the births and early lives of her two children, she is close, attentive, touchy, self-obsessed and occasionally hilarious. In a strange structural analogy with its subject, the book begins at a high pitch of admirably controlled intensity and then gradually spreads out, becoming increasingly random and disorganised, finally degenerating into prolonged advisory ruminations on child safety, housework, foetal health and family relationships.
It is hard to write about something so intimate without revealing too much of yourself, yet the presence of a gifted writer in this sphere of female silence and servitude is always thrilling. No matter how much she may think she is merely telling her own story, her powers of observation attend her. "Nothing could hurry this. There was no technology for it: I was the technology - increasingly stupid, increasingly kind, a mystery to myself, to [my husband] and to everyone who passed me by."
Enright is a patient writer. Her real triumph, as she plots her slow transformation into the mother of two children, is to capture the delicate sense of parenthood as something that, for all its frequent impositions, stems so profoundly from the self that it is almost an act of reading, of self-interpretation. I wanted much more of this expatiation and much less of her jokey "advice" ("No one gives a toss about your second pregnancy. Get on with it").
People - women - often jeer at the notion of writing about motherhood, as though both activities were demeaned by their association. In her introduction, Enright recalls the abuse she received when part of this book was published in a newspaper. Although startling and upsetting, such a response can show a writer her own power. It shows the rest of us what we are up against, too.
I like to think that books such as this one are quietly revolutionising the outraged, conservative core of nurture. I like to think that Enright's writing of it will be recognised as an act of generosity. But perhaps a thousand similar books will need to be written before a woman can embark on motherhood equipped not with a raft of "what to" expectations, but with intimations of real complexity; of "the anxiety of reproduction, the oddness of it, and how it feels like dying, pulled inside out".
Rachel Cusk's novel The Lucky Ones is out in paperback from Perennial