Afterthoughts: The Birth Machine by Elizabeth Baines

In a Nutshell: A good novel but one, due to the subject matter, that is probably best appreciated by a female audience. Some willpower is needed to stick both with the complexity of an ever increasingly abstract narrative, and a ceaseless bombardment of medical jargon and procedure, but efforts are rewarded. I came away from this book feeling contented; pleased that I had just consumed a well-crafted work of literary fiction.

*****

Before you read my review on The Birth Machine by Elizabeth Baines (Salt Publishing), I invite you to visit my forethoughts on the book. Here you will be able to read a full preview on the book, together with a few preliminary thoughts on it. For those who don’t have the time or the inclination, here’s a brief rundown on the plot:

Zelda, the wife of medical researcher Dr. Roland Harris, is brought into hospital to begin the induction process for the birth of her first baby. As Zelda’s labour progresses her state of mind changes, and she stresses about her current situation she goes in and out of dream-like phases, where her mind casts back to her childhood, and one particularly traumatic and indelible memory.

Somewhat weighed down in technical jargon
So that’s a brief rundown on what The Birth Machine is about (trust me it’s a short work of fiction so you don’t need to know much more than that), but what did I really think of it? Well I’ve got to to say that I enjoyed this novel very much, even though it’s a little heavy going at times. And it’s heavy going for a couple of reasons. Firstly, there’s a fair amount of medical jargon and run down on procedure. Of course, knowing from the outset that this is a book about a woman going through the various stages of induced labour, I was expecting all of the medical lingo (in fact if you’d read my forethoughts post then you’d know a hospital phobia had me dreading it :)), but maybe not quite to the technical depth I experienced. While this is a credit to the author’s knowledge on the subject (or more probably her research skills), there were paragraphs of the novel (thankfully not too many), that read more like a medical textbook than a work of prose, and it took a bit of effort sticking with it. This is not a criticism – the overly technical presence both informed and authenticated the story – but it just took a little more focus keeping with the text at times.

Secondly, as the story develops and Zelda gets more and more hallucinatory and confused (a side effect of both the drugs and the prolonged pain), so the story gets more abstract, ambiguous and mixed up. This change in prose and the mixing up of story threads is, of course, in reaction to the drastic change in character, but it does increase the difficulty in being able follow and comprehend the story. I should quickly add however that Baines’ treatment of the changing character of Zelda is triumphant, so the extra effort needed is worth it. I read somewhere that Baines likes to ‘consciously explore and experiment with style and tone’, and this is clearly evident in the way that the novel evolves.

Well crafted characters, but too little McGuirk
On briefly then to a quick mention of the characters in The Birth Machine and I’ve got to say that I thoroughly enjoyed them all. They are all fairly well crafted and, for the most part, interesting. Zelda not surprisingly is the most developed of all, and she is also, for me, almost the most intriguing. Zelda is very credible character and one really feels empathy both for the situation she is in, and the shocking secret she carries with her (no spoilers here, folks :)). Her husband Roland, who is something of an overly nervous and somewhat weak research doctor, is another interesting fellow, but I felt that he did not feature in the story quite as much as I perhaps hoped that he would have.

I said that Zelda was almost the most intriguing character in The Birth Machine for me, but there is one other key character who intrigued me more. That character is the obstetrics professor Professor McGuirk, who opens the novel having freshly flown in to Boston from England to giving a lecture, before rushing to the airport straight after, to catch a plane back home in time for supper. I was instantly attracted to McGuirk, both for his scholarly intelligence and his mild eccentricity. This is one character that I felt had a lot more to give, but he didn’t really get all that much of a chance to give it (ironically most of the medical jargon that I ‘complained’ about before comes from the mouth of McGuirk :)). Saying that, this story is of course all about Zelda, and her journey through labour and childbirth, so to take the focus away from her and to give it to another character would be detrimental (especially in such a short novel), so this is no criticism whatsoever on the author or her story, I’m just passing comment on a personal preference for characters.

Before closing this review I should mention that although Baines has turned out a rather special and entertaining little story, she had something of an ulterior motive. She states in her author notes that she wanted to tell a story which explores the arrogance of contemporary medical thinking; to poke at the fact that certain personal health matters are overlooked in the name of scientific advancement. She said that she choose to set her novel in the world of obstetrics because ‘in the moments of birth the line between burgeoning life and proximate death is at its fuzziest and, in the contemporary high-tech set-up, so-called scientific objectivity and personal subjectivity [are] most strikingly in conflict’. So her novel has something of a political aspect to it, but thankfully she’s somewhat subtle in her execution, and such a motive can really only be spotted when one reads between the lines.

In summing up then I’m happy to state that my first dip into the literary world of Elizabeth Baines has been a wholly positive one. The Birth Machine is a very accomplished short novel, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I would say however that for the most part this novel is perhaps more suited to the female readership. I believe that a woman (especially one who’s gone through childbirth), will be able to relate to the subject matter a lot better than any man could, and for that reason alone I think it’s more for readers of the fairer sex.

Only one question remains I suppose. Did I faint or throw up while reading The Birth Machine as I said I might in my forethoughts? Thankfully I didn’t although I got a little giddy around the subject of ‘breaking waters’. Actually, The Birth Machine turned out to be not that graphic, something for which I’m eternally grateful to Elizabeth Baines for :).

Rating: ★★★½☆

:: What others have said about The Birth Machine::

  • “Salt’s done the public a service in bringing this one back. It’s a rock-hard satire and a very, very, very good read”Valerie O’Riordan for Bookmunch.
  • “I enjoyed this book very much. It’s the best thing I’ve read by her…and I’m happy to recommend it, to men (and not simply fathers) as well as women (and not simply feminists).” Jim Murdoch, The Truth About Lies.

Salt Publishing | November 2010 | £8.99 | PAPERBACK | 160 PP | ISBN: 9781907773020

About Rob

Rob, a self-confessed bibliophile, is without any hope of rehabilitation. He gets unnaturally excited over anything book-shaped, and if book sniffing were a crime then he would have been locked up years ago (which wouldn't bother him in the slightest provided his cell was lined with books)