Still Born by Guadalupe Nettel (transl. Rosalind Harvey): The many forms of mothering

Cover image for Still Born by Guadaloupe Nettel It’s some time since I’ve read anything from Fitzcarraldo who divide their list into white covers for non-fiction and a gorgeous cobalt blue for fiction. Mexican author Guadalupe Nettel’s fourth novel, Still Born, caught my eye with its theme of motherhood as a choice. It follows two friends – both in their mid-thirties, both intensely involved in their careers, both, apparently, united in their decision not to have children – whose lives take very different turns.

Motherhood is a social commandment

So convinced is Laura of her decision she undergoes sterilisation, eagerly sharing the news with her dearest friend Alina only to find it received uncomfortably. Alina has changed her mind but is finding it difficult to conceive. Laura is horrified at Alina’s decision, already assuming her friend will disappear into the growing band of mothers she no longer sees, all wrapped up in motherhood and its demands. When Alina becomes pregnant via IVF, Laura shares in her happiness, at first grudgingly then with more sincerity, until Alina and Aurelio are told that the daughter they have come to love will be born so disabled she’s unlikely to live. Meanwhile, Laura has become increasingly disturbed by her neighbour’s son’s outbursts of abuse aimed at his mother. Nicolás is just five years old but has already soaked up the violence his father aimed at Doris for years. As Laura tries to help she finds herself drawn to this boy who responds to her so trustingly. By the end of this brief novella, many forms of mothering will have been explored, none of them simple or straightforward.

Love and common sense are not always compatible. In general, one tends to choose intensity no matter how little time it lasts, and in spite of all that it puts at risk

In a cool, detached voice, Laura narrates this exploration of the expectations placed upon women by a society in which motherhood is taken as the norm. Alina’s experience is a poignant and difficult one as she eventually comes to terms with the loss of a dream while Laura finds there are ways to mother other than the conventional route taken by many of her friends. Hard to sum up my feelings about this one. The ideas discussed certainly interested me enough to happily recommend Nettel’s novel to those attracted by its themes but I had expected to become more emotionally involved with the characters’ dilemmas then I did. Nicely open ending, though.

Fitzcarraldo Editions: London 9781913097660 200 pages Paperback (Read via NetGalley)

10 thoughts on “Still Born by Guadalupe Nettel (transl. Rosalind Harvey): The many forms of mothering”

  1. This was my first Fitzcarraldo and I was very pleasantly surprised by it – I liked the cool detached tone, which isn’t always the case for me! I’d read more Nettel, for sure.

    1. It’s a style I like but I wondered if that was what made connecting with the characters harder than I’d expected. Very much liked the way she handled her themes, though.

  2. I haven’t read anything by Nettel so far, but this one does pique my interest. Somehow it is Laura’s experience that I find myself more keen to see–how her understanding and feelings change.

  3. An interesting review, Susan. It sounds as if that cool, detached style comes with advantages and drawbacks – a good fit for the book’s themes, but less successful perhaps in encouraging engagement with the characters. I’d heard Nettel’s name before (possibly from Stu at Winston’s) but this is the first review I’ve seen for a while…

    1. I think that was the effect of that detached tone for me although it worked for Elle. You may well be right about Stu’s blog, a man with an almost unrivalled global literary scope!

  4. Fitzcarraldo are such an interesting publisher and it does sound as if this novel takes on such powerful themes. It’s a shame the detached voice limited it to an extent – I find I do need to connect with a character, even if I don’t like them particularly, for something to really hit home for me.

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