The Birth of Love, by Joanna Kavenna, Faber, RRP£7.99, 320 pages
Four disparate narratives, all anchored in the agonising mystery of childbirth, display Joanna Kavenna’s rich emotional palette in this ambitious second novel.
Doctor Semmelweis raves in an asylum in 19th-century Vienna, ostracised for linking poor hygiene with childbed fever. In contemporary London, a writer publishes his novel on Semmelweis, while a woman in labour is plagued by her mother. And in near-barren 2153, escapees from a species-maintenance programme are interrogated.
The dystopian future and the gory Vienna interlude, which reads like a Poe pastiche, feel thematically contrived; both amplify the delicate skill of Kavenna’s tender and gripping London stories. Together they interrogate, more or less subtly, questions of women’s ownership of their bodies, male efforts to intervene in the process of birth and the force of procreation – and are delicately coloured by the author’s fascination with mental instability, which she explored in her startling 2007 debut, Inglorious.