Book reviews: Still Born by Guadalupe Nettel and The Drowned Forest by Angela Barry
always born is a novel that counts with extraordinary grace on the many complications of motherhood. In crystal clear prose, Guadalupe Nettel, translated by Rosalind Harvey, offers various epiphanies about becoming a parent. “We have the children we have, not the ones we imagined we would have, or the ones we would have loved,” is a crucial statement voiced by the narrator, Laura, a doctoral student in her thirties, who speaks with an almost omniscient clarity.
His main observations relate to the hardships experienced by his friend, Alina, a conservative, desperate to have a baby. Originally, Laura feels betrayed when Alina announces this desire. They have, after all, spent years bonding over their mutual desire to be childless. Laura was recently sterilized to ensure this. But, while supporting Alina with the difficulties that arise during her pregnancy, Laura recognizes her own charged maternal instincts. Encounters with her next-door neighbors force her even more to question her conceptions of mothering.
Care, as set out in always born, is both a form of work, often done reluctantly, and an opportunity for self-fulfillment. Nettel shrewdly considers the emotional nourishment that lovers and friends, as well as parents, can provide. It is through tender acts of caring that their relationships survive, as the characters work together to create their own chosen families. always born embraces both the joys of motherhood and all the grime treats, guilt-ridden and agonizing. The decisions made are never simple. But this novel is key in its emphasis on people’s right to make their own choices about their own bodies.
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Angela Barry’s Novel The drowned forest is a powerful exploration of Bermuda’s colonial heritage, deftly unpacking the layers of class, race, privilege and education as they encircle the lives of the characters living on the island. The story is mediated through multiple perspectives, centering on Genesis, a black teenager, who navigates through the care system and faces the prospect of incarceration after standing up for herself against a bully.
Various personalities from different cultures on the island band together to prevent this from happening: philanthropist Tess, a white woman who inherited hideous wealth (and guilt) from her colonial ancestors; Lizzie, a smartly dressed insurer, finds a home away from her Portuguese Catholic family; and Nina, a grieving middle-class black nurse who wants her charge to stay on track. As they collaboratively attempt to care for Genesis, each woman seems determined to shape her to fit her own definition of what a respectable young woman should be.
Genesis offers insightful and witty observations on the weaknesses of its tutors; his voice rings out like a bugle throughout the story, evoking the pain of adolescent desire. Faced with the pressure of all the expectations of women, Genesis tries to find her own path through the desert of growth. She discovers how each character copes with the inescapable hold of Bermuda’s past on their current reality. His encounter with an ancient cedar root, unearthed from the ocean, becomes the embodiment of this truth. In this titular symbol of The drowned forest, Barry points out the dangers of ignoring our history – and the climate crisis. It reminds us that our past is rooted in our present.