Still Born 
by Guadalupe Nettel, translated by Rosalind Harvey.
Fitzcarraldo, 219 pp., £12.99, June 2022, 978 1 913097 66 0
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‘Do I want to have children?’ For a woman in her mid-thirties, the question can be vexed. It’s not that she suppressed the question in her twenties, but she was occupied with other things – how to earn a living, for one. Then, in her thirties, a sense of urgency kicks in. The question, inasmuch as it refers to a pregnancy with her own genetic material, can no longer be deferred. She must arrive at a decision, or one will be made for her. A diffuse social pressure intensifies. Even those who have always expressed certainty, whether their response is yes or no, might be overcome by doubt. The potential for regret seems great – and the act of weighing the question has been taken up in several recent novels, including Sheila Heti’s Motherhood and Jessie Greengrass’s Sight, whose narrators dramatise their struggle, through repetitive thoughts and digressions, to arrive at a resolution.

Laura, the thirty-something narrator of Still Born, Guadalupe Nettel’s latest novel, understands this conflict. In her twenties, as a literature student in Paris, she resolved to remain childless. After all, children are expensive. They impose a high emotional toll and curtail the freedom of women. But not long after she turns 33, Laura begins to recognise the appeal of pregnancy, ‘just as someone who, without ever having contemplated suicide, allows themselves to be seduced by the abyss from the top of a skyscraper’. She decides, in a moment of clarity, that she will neither succumb to this ‘irresistible force’ nor prolong the deliberation. She seeks out the ‘perfect precaution’, a ‘genuine inoculation against societal pressure’: she gets her tubes tied. Her partner had been keen on becoming a father; their relationship now quickly unravels. She returns home to Mexico City, where she plans to finish her dissertation.

Laura has already sorted her peers into two groups: those who are determined to preserve their autonomy by remaining childless (‘accept[ing] the disgrace heaped on them by society and family’) and those who are not. Alina, a reserved woman who works at an art gallery, has always belonged to the first group. The two friends even share a private joke about children, calling them the ‘human shackles’. But over dinner one night, Alina confesses that she and her partner, Aurelio, have been trying to get pregnant for more than a year, and she is about to start fertility treatment. She’s willing and can evidently afford to enlist any available medical technologies, including IVF and egg donation (‘I have seen people squander fortunes,’ Laura says). At first Laura refuses to feign happiness for her most dependable friend. She expects a ‘rift’ to open between them, whether or not Alina becomes pregnant. But when she does conceive, Laura finds Alina’s elation too infectious to rebuff.

These events could fill a novel of their own, but they occur within the first ten pages of Still Born. Laura, who has so far kept close to her own experiences, is about to tell a story – Alina’s. It’s here that Nettel’s taut plot takes off. There have already been clues that Alina’s pregnancy may prove complicated. Laura, who used to dabble in tarot and astrology, has glimpsed tragedy in her friend’s fate. There is also the book’s suggestive title. During Alina’s third trimester, it is confirmed: her baby, a girl she has already named Inés, suffers from microlissencephaly, a rare disorder in which the brain is both small and smooth, lacking the usual ridges and folds. ‘She will die when we separate her from you,’ a gynaecologist tells her. He tries to reassure her: ‘It’s as if she had no brain at all.’ The law in Mexico prohibits abortions at this late stage, and although some doctors will still perform them in certain circumstances, Alina’s does not offer. She will have to bring the baby to term. A run-up to life turns into a run-up to death.

Nettel, who was born in Mexico City and has lived in France, Canada and Spain, has published three previous novels and five collections of short stories. Solitude, the vulnerabilities of the body, unearthing the beautiful in the strange, outsiders who are unwilling to conform – these are some of her interests. In The Body Where I Was Born (2015), which Nettel has described as ‘an autobiographical novel, a memoir’, the narrator, a woman in her thirties, revisits her difficult childhood in Mexico City and Aix-en-Provence, marked by a congenital cataract that leaves her nearly blind in one eye. It’s a reminiscence but also a recitation, with the narrator addressing her therapist. After the Winter (2018) features two first-person narrators: Claudio, a Cuban-born textbook editor living on New York’s Upper West Side, and Cecilia, a Mexican graduate student in Paris. In alternating chapters they outline their feelings of loneliness and their preoccupation with death. They meet and have a brief affair – offering divergent interpretations of the same events – but their encounter seems almost incidental, a stopover on otherwise independent trajectories. Both books emphasise some of the artifices of storytelling, and trouble the authority of the narrator, even as they mostly conform to realism.

Nettel carries some of these concerns into Still Born. As she describes Alina’s preparations for the day when she will both meet her daughter and bid her goodbye – she pays for a hospital room and a surgeon but also for a funeral service and an urn – it becomes clear that as a narrator Laura will not transcend her role as friend. There will be limits to what she knows and how she knows it. She gives a summary of Alina’s thoughts after visiting a grief counsellor, shortly before the baby is born:

Alina told me that those two hours a week she spent thinking about the issue helped her to not focus on it all the time; she didn’t feel it was healthy to wallow in pain, in the whirlwind of questions that assailed her whenever she let her guard down even slightly: why has this happened? Is it bad luck? Is it my fault? Is it because of my genes, or Aurelio’s? Or a mixture of the two? What should I have done differently? Why did I get pregnant? How am I going to tell my parents? Among many, many more. She couldn’t allow herself this luxury. For the moment, at least, she had to just keep on going.

That ‘Alina told me’ and the many other caveats – ‘Alina maintains’, ‘She says now’, ‘I later found out’ – account for the way Laura can access Alina’s thoughts or relay speech she wasn’t present to hear. Elsewhere, Laura admits to making speculations or assumptions about her friend. Of an encounter between Alina and a doctor: ‘A sarcastic smile must have flickered across my friend’s lips.’ Of a favourite book: ‘I’m sure that its words had left a deep impression somewhere in her consciousness.’

A different version of the novel might have cast Alina as the narrator. Instead, Laura serves as witness and interpreter, establishing a buffer between the reader and the book’s harrowing events. The prose, which appears in an elegant translation by Rosalind Harvey, retains a matter-of-factness, and in some places a synoptic quality (‘among many, many more’) that is rarely freighted with sadness or despair. One result is that the tumult of a doomed pregnancy and the insufficiencies of women’s healthcare recede. It’s friendship, not crisis, that emerges as the novel’s focal point. ‘There are beings without whom we simply cannot conceive of ourselves in this world. Alina was one of these for me. If she disappeared, a part of me would go with her.’

But Laura isn’t simply her friend’s interpreter. However central her relationship with Alina remains, there are others of consequence too. She befriends her new neighbours, a woman called Doris (‘skinny, anxious’ and ‘almost always dressed in sportswear’) and her young son, Nicolás, whose explosive outbursts Laura hears from her apartment. ‘He hurls insults and profanities around, which is somewhat disconcerting in a child of his age. He also slams doors and throws all sorts of things at the walls.’ These episodes, Laura learns, began nearly three years earlier, after the boy’s father died in a car accident. The father had a rage problem, which now ‘haunted [Doris] through the little boy’. As Doris sinks into a stultifying depression, Laura begins caring for Nico, making his meals, taking him for walks and making sure he completes his homework. Meanwhile, her relationship with her own mother begins to fray. They don’t fall out, but quietly abandon their Sunday morning breakfast ritual, and go months without seeing each other. ‘You always [judge me],’ her mother says when they eventually speak on the phone, ‘and I’m sick and tired of that.’

Laura is less censorious towards the other people in her life. Inés is born at the start of the second part of the novel, and doesn’t die immediately after all. (The title is explained: she is still born, despite the prognosis.) Alina is unprepared for this outcome. She imagines an ‘inert teenage girl whose sanitary towels she would have to change’. That night, Alina lies awake, thinking:

Whereas before, she had told her daughter that she would have liked to get to know her, now she asked her mentally – as if the child were still in her womb and not in an incubator a couple of floors above her – to leave: ‘Go away, Inés. There’s nothing for you here. Go away, and do it soon! If you stay, neither of us will have any sort of life.’

Laura isn’t interested in cross-examinations, even when Alina’s thoughts stray beyond what’s usually considered acceptable. And while she’s initially distrustful of Doris, whose hands-off parenting style she can’t understand, she comes to offer her neighbour the same gentle acceptance. ‘All I feel is worn out by his rages and his constant rudeness,’ Doris confides. ‘Sometimes I tell myself I’d be better off if I hadn’t had him. It’s awful, don’t you think? Normal mothers don’t think those kinds of things, do they?’ Laura doesn’t respond. Not being a mother herself, she doesn’t feel she knows what they think. But Nettel is a mother, and she seems to be saying that ‘normal mothers’ do think ugly thoughts – or rather, that there is no such thing as a ‘normal mother’. There is a strong tradition of works that connect maternal ambivalence to horror tropes – Rosemary’s Baby, The Fifth Child, We Need to Talk about Kevin – but Still Born is different.

Nettel is careful about which parts of the outside world she lets filter through. There are allusions to Mexico’s femicides, and at one point Laura and Doris have difficulty finding a taxi because a demonstration against gender violence is blocking the roads. A feminist collective plays a role in one of the novel’s subplots; another features brood parasitism, a phenomenon in which a female bird lays her eggs in another’s nest, passing on the duty of incubating and rearing her young. By the time Alina hires a woman to help care for Inés, and Doris starts to consider sending Nico to live with her sister, it’s evident that Nettel is making a case for chosen kinship. When Alina feels both jealous of the nanny and guilty for hiring her, a friend tries to comfort her. ‘We’ve always looked after other women’s children, and there are always other women who help us take care of our own,’ the friend says. ‘Motherhood has always been very porous.’

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