Forethoughts: The Birth Machine by Elizabeth Baines

I think is was earlier in the year, or possibly late last year, when Salt Publishing’s Chris Hamilton-Emery was showing off his latest handiwork with a new batch of sexy covers coming out of The Cover Factory, for his own publishing house’s upcoming titles (that’s right folks with Chris at the helm at The Cover Factory he effectively creates the covers for Salt publications, in-house – very handy). One of the covers that struck me straightaway was the one for the upcoming (at the time) republished 1983 novel by Elizabeth Baines, The Birth Machine. The image on the cover (accredited to Selim Ucar) not only troubled me, but it sent a shiver right down my spine (for reasons which will be revealed). I passed on my compliments to Chris on a job well done, and then pretty much forgot all about it (such is the fickle nature of Twitter).

It must have been destiny then, when a few weeks later author Elizabeth Baines dropped me a line asking if I would like to review her republished novel. At first I didn’t know which novel it was, but then Elizabeth pointed me to it, and that haunting pink birthing chair popped up on my screen. How could I possibly refuse? :)

And so I find myself about to head into The Birth Machine. Before I do it’s time to offer up a few forethoughts. I’ll begin, as always, by setting the scene with the cover blurb (which may or may not contain spoilers):

Tucked up on the ward and secure in the latest technology, Zelda is about to give birth to her baby. But things don’t go to plan, and as her labour progresses and the drugs take over, Zelda enters a surreal world where past and present become confused and blend with fairytale and myth, and where old secrets surface, finally give birth to disturbing revelations in the present.

The Birth Machine is a gripping story of buried secrets and a long-ago murder, and of present-day betrayals. Above all, it is a powerful novel about the ways we can wield control through logic and language, and about the battle over who owns the right to knowledge to tell the stories of who we are.

Now, I know that the The Birth Machine was originally published in the 80s, but back then I didn’t read a lot of fiction and so I come to this novel as a complete newcomer. I’m looking forward to it too, even though I’m a little wary of the subject matter.

You see, me and the whole birthing process don’t really get along too well together. Call me a wimp but I don’t even like hospitals, let alone the labour ward (now do you see why the cover image for The Birth Machine hit me so hard? :)), and even though I have two daughters (now in their late teens), I never got within twenty feet of their initial arrival into this world (I know, I’m an evil unsupportive husband and father :)). And so reading a book that focuses on the world of child birth and obstetrics fills me with some degree of trepidation. I’m going to be strong though (big of me, eh?) and I’m going to suck it in and hope that things don’t get too graphic, because I really think that if a novel is good enough to republish, then it really can’t be ignored. Right? Right!

I guess there’s another reason why I’m interested in reading The Birth Machine, linked to the fact that it’s a reissue. This novel was first published in 1983, a lot has changed since then (including my waistline :)), and with this being such a technical novel (technical in a technology sense), it’s going to be interesting to find out what has changed in in the world of obstetrics, and whether or not this novel has stood the test of time. Will the novel reveal similarities to today’s practices? Have attitudes towards childbirth changed radically over the past 25+ years? All may or may not be revealed (although in my case nothing will probably be revealed because I’m not exactly an expert to begin with. Regardless, at least I should be enlightened somewhat :))

And my final reason for reading The Birth Machine? Well it’s that little bit in the blurb about ‘long-ago murder’ and ‘present-day betrayal’. What reader in their right mind – especially one as deranged as me – wouldn’t be tempted by such a juicy caveat?

So what of the author Elizabeth Baines? Well, born in South Wales and now living in Manchester, Baines is no stranger to the wonderful world of language. Her mother was Welsh, her father was Scottish, and she herself was a teacher of English for several years. With three novels published to date (The Birth Machine, Body Cuts and Too Many Magpies), a short story collection (Balancing on the Edge of the World), a number of plays, and various non-fiction articles, Baines is a prolific writer (and blogger), but she is also, in her own words, very experimental in her technique. “Being inventive with language and structure is what I find exciting,” says Elizabeth, and with her dipping her toe in so many literary pools, it’s easy to see that the woman is hugely passionate about the written word. How exciting then, it is to be reading her.

And so it is with much anticipation dear fellow reader, that I take my first step into the literary world of Elizabeth Baines. As I said before, it’s a tentative one but only because my pathetic phobia is stopping me from jumping in with both feet (I’ll be fine :)). If I don’t faint or throw up before I finish it, I’ll be back just as soon as I can with my final afterthoughts. Meantime, if you want to know a little more about Elizabeth Baines, then please follow the links below.

So dear reader, are you wholly familiar with Elizabeth Baines? Have you read any of her novels? It would be great to hear from anyone who has, especially someone who may have read The Birth Machine the first time around, in the 1980s. What of her short stories? Have you dipped in to any of those? (being the prolific short story read that I am, I’m surprised that I haven’t). Please drop me any thoughts and feelings in the comments below. Thank you.

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

Find out more about Elizabeth Baines:

A note about forethoughts
‘Forethoughts’ offer an insight into what my initial thoughts and impressions of a book are before I begin reading it. Informal, and largely written as a stream-of-consciousness exercise in a single sitting, my ‘forethoughts’ capture an important stage of the reading experience for me – the anticipatory period before the book is first opened, when my excitement is piqued for the reading experience which lies ahead.

Blissfully ignorant my ‘forethoughts’ may well be, but when combined with my eventual ‘afterthoughts’, the result is a unique and comprehensive record of a very personal literary ‘journey’ through a particular book; a literary journey which will hopefully be of some value to other readers.

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)

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