The premise of Heather Marshall’s Looking for Jane immediately appealed to me: the chance discovery of a misdelivered letter sets the woman who stumbled upon it on a quest to find the addressee, long since gone elsewhere. Marshall uses this trigger to explore the underground networks that existed in both Canada and the USA providing safe but illegal abortions before it was decriminalised. As she points out in her author’s note, her novel is about motherhood and choice rather than abortion.
What would a professional virgin know about being pregnant?
Angela comes across the letter, overlooked in a pile of used books for seven years, addressed to Nancy Mitchell who once lived in the flat above the Toronto shop where she works. On opening it, she finds a heartfelt confession from Nancy’s adoptive mother who had never told Nancy of her status, striking a chord in Angela who is adopted herself. She sets about trying to track down Nancy, distracting herself from her attempts to become pregnant much to the disapproval of her wife. Wind back to 1961 when Evelyn is waiting for the birth of her child in St Agnes’ Home for Unwed Mothers, knowing that she will be forced to give up this much wanted baby. She and her roommate Margaret help each other bear the nuns’ cruelty until the two are separated by the births of their daughters. Two decades later, Nancy learns the hard way how devastating an illegal abortion can be when her cousin becomes pregnant. By the time she has her own unwanted pregnancy to deal with, she’s learnt to ask for Jane, the codeword that will lead her to a sympathetic doctor risking a criminal record and, increasingly, their life, in order to keep women safe. So grateful is Nancy, she volunteers as a counsellor until the day in 1988 when abortion is finally legalised in Canada. After several twists and turns, all three women’s narratives are satisfyingly drawn together.
It all comes down to having the right to make the choice
This is such an engrossing story and such an enlightening own, too. Marshall skilfully switches perspectives between the three women as she unfolds each of their stories, exploring the many and various reproductive choices, which have not always been open to women, in all their complexity, from Angela’s experiences of IVF to Clara’s narrow escape at the hands of a back street abortionist and the forced adoption of Evelyn’s child. It’s overarching theme is the necessity for choice. Such an important word: I’ve always felt frustrated at the use of language around the issue of abortion – I’m passionately pro-choice and resent being called pro-abortion with all that implies. The cruelty of the mother and baby homes is, of course, no surprise but, as ever, it shocks in its universality. Marshall’s novel tells such an immersive, moving story, and tells it so well. Her lengthy author’s note is well worth reading both for context and for her own very personal view.
Hodder Studio: London 9781529364125 400 pages Hardback (read via NetGalley)
That’s it for me for a week. H and I are off to explore Manchester, meet a couple of old friends and maybe visit a few bookshops. I will, of course, be taking an umbrella.