Once & Future

Charlotte Ashley – Book seller, collector, writer, editor, historian

July 22, 2010

Birth and… more Birth at The Breakwater House

Becoming a mother these days is a decidedly political act.  For what is I suspect the first time in history, women in Western societies now by and large have children very deliberately and by choice.  This has resulted in a radical shift in how we view motherhood: rather than being the inevitable condition of our sex, it is a lifestyle choice.  Every step from conception to your child’s University career and beyond is riddled with politics and judgement. Is the world overpopulated? Should you wait until you buy the house? What about fertility treatments? Is coffee okay while pregnant? Were you forced into that c-section? Is breast best? Gentle discipline or tight control? Private, public or alternative school?  Does the unschooled child have any social skills?  “Free-range kids” or parental neglect?  Is it okay to make a kid “repeat a grade”?  Is it okay to call my kid’s professor about his marks?

The world of parenting is pure insanity, frankly.  Absolutely gone are the days where you had kids because it just happened, and then you raised them because you loved them, come what may.  No, now parenting is as much about you, the parent, than it is about the child.  Or, if Pascale Quiviger can be considered any kind of expert (I can not determine if she has any children of her own – it does not seem to be the case, but these days, who needs to have any idea what they’re talking about to spout off about motherhood?), motherhood is much, much more about the mother than the child.  In The Breakwater House, birth is a thaumaturgical force which has the power to both save and destroy mothers’ lives.  The resultant child is a powerful talisman who can heal, mend or weaken its mother.  It is decidedly not a person.

There’s no question that motherhood is a powerful condition.  A child provides a richness and sense of expanded purpose that I certainly enjoy in my life.  Nevertheless Quiviger’s characterization of the condition as “the wound of love” was maddeningly narcissistic.  The many mothers of her novel lack the strength of character to transcend the experience intact.  Victimized or damaged women are given babies (often by the eponymous house, a lovely little  device that would have been right at home in the novels of Gabriel Garcia Marquez if Quiviger hadn’t over-explained her allegory out of either lack of faith in her readers or fear of a genre designation.) in order to heal them and give them a reason to be.  Tragically, the gift of a child is as likely to make a mother miserable as it is to heal them.  Here is the “wound” of motherhood’s love.  The collective voice of Quiviger’s mothers shouts, “I love you because I have to but I want my life back!”  The tone of the book is sympathetic: these poor women, crushed by maternal love.  Don’t you feel for them?  Aurore, mother of Lucie, is more or less exonerated of the crime of abandoning her 14-year-old daughter because she never wanted the child to begin with, and anyway, Lucie was apparently in the way of the lifestyle she wanted to pursue.  This rather late term abortion can be contrasted with Alambra’s sacrificed fetus; Alambra at least having been able to shed her burden before she had to give 15 year of her life up to it.  Both women share the same air of tragedy.  They loved their babies but, alas, my life.  My life.

Claire and Lucie, the “eyeyuyueye”, are a warning; collectively losing their lives to the loss of Odyssée.  They do not want to imagine life without her, and yet it’s difficult to discern their happiness at having been mothers from under the heavy veil of the novel’s insane, grief-stricken framework.  The only mother who seems truly pleased with motherhood is Gisèle, whose disabled daughter is literally nothing more than a love-generating device for a woman who suffered a debilitating mental illness until she was able to procure a baby which would love her forever, unconditionally, without inconveniently growing up and gaining its own life.  What this says about mental illness, the disabled, and the selfishness of mothers is almost unfathomably unethical.

Birth is not, in the Breakwater House, a process of creating a life outside yourself.  It is a process of conjuring up more of yourself.  Quiviger deserves kudos for composing the mother-who-lives-through-her-child to pitch-perfection, but that woman is extremely grating.

The “illuminated” prose the Globe and Mail blurb led me to expect was also a disappointment, either because I lack the ability to decode it or because the process of translation rubbed it out. Three pages in the Sphinx-like pseudo-wisdom begins: “It makes sense to begin at the end – at the beginning of the end, which in itself is a beginning.”  The “insights” which begin as simply asinine eventually become completely inscrutable:  “Without peace, she writes, survival is redundant.”  Huh?  Poetic descriptions without meaning assailed me throughout.  I have never been a big fan of novels written by poets for this very reason.  You can keep your Michael Ondaatjes and Gil Adamsons, I like my language to be clear and meaningful.  “Schizoid-pink” is not a colour, and if it is, it’s downright un-PC.

One last quibble: The blurb on the back of the 2010 English paperback edition (pictured) is completely misleading.  It suggests a narrative structure which is not there at all, and even describes events which never happened: Lucie and Claire take turns telling stories to Odyssée?  When?  The blurb inside the front flap is much more honest.  This marketing sleight of hand I think reveals the difficult task Anansi has ahead of them:  How to sell a book about motherhood which will probably frustrate most actual mothers and mystify most non-mothers?  I wish them luck but I’m afraid I can not help.

5 thoughts on “Birth and… more Birth at The Breakwater House”

  1. Kerry says:

    Wow, you got a lot more out of this than I did. What a fascinating response. I was just hung up on the dead kid and her boot, and the cheapest ways to provoke reader response. How readers will mistake their emotional reaction to Odysee’s death for a profound reading experience. Which it really wasn’t…

    1. Charlotte says:

      Hear hear! By the time that really came to a head I was already annoyed on other counts. In any case I find reading about dead babies so painful that I have to skim those sequences, so I’d have no idea how well written they’d be!

  2. steph says:

    Yum: “thaumaturgical.” Brownie points for that fab word! :)

    I haven’t read this book yet but it’s been on my list. And now, after your (fantastic) review…well, meh.

    This thing: “I love you because I have to but I want my life back!” I hear it over and over again and have one friend in particular who is deeply suffering in this kind of motherhood. I choose not to have kids, and let me tell you, the overriding impression I get from mothers these days certainly isn’t changing my mind.

    At the same time, as you implied, it’s tiresome, and certainly not every mother’s experience. It’s sounding as though the book is rather full of whingeing mothers.

  3. steph says:

    PS. I haven’t forgotten my promise to you when you won my little contest. If you’d still like a novel from one of those authors in the post, let me know!

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