Category Archives: Literature

Anna Starobinets: Look At Him

Book:  Look At Him (Posmotri na nego, 2017) is the seventh book for adults by Russian novelist, children’s author, screenwriter and journalist Anna Starobinets. The English translation, by poet and translator Katherine Young, will can be pre-ordered from Slavica in the US with a September 2020 release date. (UK rights are still available). In Look At Him, Starobinets unflinchingly describes what happened after a routine scan in 2012 revealed that her unborn child had a fatal congenital condition, tracing her subsequent hunt for compassionate clinical care in Russia and in Germany, and the aftermath of her decision to terminate the pregnancy.

Accuracy: This book is searingly accurate. In the first, main section, Starobinets rigorously documents her own changing emotions – shock, hysteria, fear, irrationality, guilt, panic attacks, grief, grief, grief. The second, shorter half of the book consists of interviews with medical staff (all German – no Russian clinicians would respond to her questions) and with mothers who suffered stillbirths or late-term medical abortions. This section closes with two pages of statistical tables, already out of date, contrasting numbers of pregnancy terminations in Germany and in Russia.

Starobinets explains her son’s condition (multicystic dysplastic kidney syndrome) and how it causes death (the useless swollen kidneys crowd the abdomen and prevent the lungs and other organs from developing, so the baby can’t breathe independently). She explains what quickening feels like, and the emotional paradox of continuing to nurture a foetus after setting a date for termination. She describes how the Russian medical system, public and private, routinely disempowers parents and makes no provision for grief counselling;  she shows how doctors at the German clinic she attends (in order to assure a humane termination for the baby) treat both parents with compassion and empathy. She documents her own fear and hesitation over seeing her son after the birth (the book’s title is adapted from her German midwife’s advice). But Starobinets is, almost inadvertently, equally insightful on the attitudes of those who mistreat her: the tyrannical cleaning lady who tries to stop her from using the outpatients’ toilet because she doesn’t have overshoes on; the austere doctor who starts calling her sixteen-week baby a ‘foetus’ and her pregnancy a ‘thing’ after confirming the diagnosis, and who then invites fifteen medical students into the room without even seeking Starobinets’ consent, as he continues the intravaginal examination; another doctor who yells at the weeping lady for seeking a second opinion. The most disturbing insight of that whole awful day, one feels, is her second brush with the cleaning lady after leaving the doctor: ‘She silently casts a glance at me, and an entirely sincere, somehow even childlike expression of malicious pleasure spreads over her face. I don’t know how I look. Very bad, I have to think’.

Style:  The translation is excellent; Young follows Starobinets’ transitions between medical jargon, lyrical outpouring, and casual slang faultlessly (well, I didn’t like “preggy-weggies”, but I’ve never been a fan of the British English equivalent “preggo” either). The hinge between personal memoir and professional interviews is obtrusive; as a reader, I would have preferred the book to end with Starobinets’ personal story, although I appreciate that she was on a mission to represent other women’s experiences too.

Empathy: Since Starobinets is writing about herself and her immediate family, empathy might be assumed. Yet Starobinets isn’t satisfied to document her own journey.  The second, more journalistic half of the book  introduces the perspectives of other bereaved mothers, and goes further: re-visiting German clinics, Starobinets asks medical staff what they feel, and how they learned to be kind. We learn how the need for ‘quiet rooms’ where parents could receive bad news, and where they could later spend time with their child after its passing, was first recognized; then researched; and then acted upon with careful attention to architecture, furniture, even lighting to create the right atmosphere for vulnerable parents.

Anna Starobinets

If there is a wider-take-home message for readers of this book (beyond the obvious emphasis on maternal experience, and the need for better care for grieving parents in hospitals and beyond), it is that empathy should never be taken for granted. It can be learned: it must be taught.

Reception: Because Look At Him provoked a whirlwind of startlingly vicious criticism when it was shortlisted for the 2018 National Bestseller (NatsBest) award in Russia (as fate would have it, one of its rivals in the competition was a novel called Look At Me), its Russian reception is worth looking at more closely. In the West, where confessional memoirs are a popular genre, the need for more public discussion about miscarriage, stillbirth, and  perinatal baby loss is just beginning to be acknowledged. It is increasingly socially acceptable to include these subjects in female life writing. Caitlin Moran was allowed to write about deciding to abort an unplanned pregnancy as long ago as 2011. In 2018, Michelle Obama helped to normalize miscarriage by writing about her own loss – and, crucially, about its psychological aftermath – in her 2018 memoir Becoming. In literary fiction, there’s still a gap in writing about this aspect of female reproductive experience: Fran Bigman discusses the absence of abortion literature in this excellent article in the LARB.

Neither female life writing, nor public discourse around baby loss, are yet normalized in Russia.  Starobinets discovers this at first hand. When Starobinets returns to Russia after the termination, leaving her son behind in a mass grave for infants at the Berlin clinic, she finds her family and friends have formed a ‘solid circle of silence’. Her eight-year-old daughter suddenly stops talking about the subject; later, Starobinets discovered that her own parents had firmly instructed the child never to mention anything about the pregnancy ‘so you can forget about it more quickly’. The extraordinarily negative reaction among some critics, including the NatsBest judges I quote here, implies mass outrage that the ‘circle of silence’ has been broken. The journalist Aglaia Toporova, for example, writes: ‘On a physical level, as a person, as a woman, and so on, I find this text loathsome’, adding ‘it’s vulgar, vulgar, vulgar’. A fellow writer, Elena Odinokova, begins by warning that reading the review will be as unpleasant for the author as reading Starobinets’ book was for her, spends the next 2000 words vilifying Look At Him, winding up (in case anyone missed her point) with the statement ‘I don’t recommend this book to anyone’. A male critic, the music journalist Artem Rondarev, bravely wades into all this female ectoplasm to assert that the book is insufficiently literary and that, while its critique of Russian prenatal care may well be worthy, the author’s over-identification with her text emotionally blackmails readers. The novelist Olga Pogodina-Kuzmina also considered the book un-literary, manipulative, and biased. Here are the top six criticisms of Look At Him, not in any order:

  1. perpetuating a cliche’d, Manichean contrast between progressive Germany and backwards Russia, particularly in terms of the compassion shown to parents by each country’s medical system (Odinokova, astonishingly for me, argues that Russian doctors don’t show empathy because they don’t waste time expressing insincere feelings; German doctors utter polite formulas because they’re terrified of malpractice suits. “Russian doctors aren’t paid to have heightened ethical sensibilities”, she asserts).
  2. suggesting that a foetus, particularly one incompatible with life, deserves to be classified as a child (in an extraordinary passage, Toporova assures her readers that she “really has the right” to judge this text, because she lost her own almost-four-year-old daughter to meningitis and grief for ‘a fragment of a woman’s body’ cannot compare; even more perplexingly, Toporova points out in passing that her daughter was also the granddaughter of Viktor Toporov, a founder of the NatsBest award, apparently in order to demonstrate that her right to grieve and right to judge are equally unassailable). Other critics who cite this argument present a more reasoned argument, suggesting that right-to-life campaigners and extreme Orthodox groups could abuse this argument to restrict a woman’s right to abortion.
  3. not having a traditional literary structure
  4. having the nerve to expect a happy ending (life happens – get over it)
  5. talking about herself ( = abusing first-person narrative to manipulate the reader)
  6. insensitivity to others (seriously: both Odinokova and Rondarev take issue with what they consider Starobinets’ dismissive critique of Russian medical professionals, and of other women with healthy pregnancies, whom she calls beremeniushki (translated by Young as ‘preggy-weggies’). For Odinokova, this failure of empathy on Starobinets’ part amounts to ‘intellectual segregation’. This is to doubly miss Starobinets’ point: far from being a bitter egotist dehumanizing other social groups, she recognizes (and protests) her own instant relegation by medical staff, friends, and even other expectant mothers from the status of a happy, well-cared-for pregnant mums to a failed patient, a mere medical curiosity. And ‘preggy-weggies’ is a self-chosen term Starobinets plucks from a mums’ chat group.

Among this chorus of detractors, the assertion by leading critic Galina Yusefovich (of Meduza) that Look At Him is a ‘classic witness-text’ and ‘compulsory reading’ for men and women alike, sounds almost lonely.

I have discussed the Russian reception of Look At Him at such length not to dwell on its negativity (some of these criticisms are clearly unbalanced) but in order to assess the cultural grounds for dismissing Starobinets’ book. The readers who savage this book as self-indulgent, manipulative, and/or self-indulgent are themselves mostly young or early middle-aged women, educated, urban, and intellectually sophisticated – precisely the same cohort which, in the West, welcomes and indeed produces female life writing. Why, then, are these modern Russian women so keen to perpetuate the ‘circle of silence’ from which Anglophone discourse has so recently emerged? And are their reasons necessarily illiberal, or more complex? Now that Look At Him is available in  English translation, it will be interesting to compare their reactions with those of Anglophone critics (one early review calls it ‘compelling and human’).

The Pregnancy Test‘s Verdict: A lacerating book, by a brave author. Read it, and grieve.

Notes: Thanks are due to Katherine Young, the English translator of Look At Him, for sharing her translation with me. The striking cover image by artist Ghislaine Howard is included in the Foundling Museum’s current Portraying Pregnancy: From Holbein to Social Media exhibition.


Agustina Bazterrica’s Tender Is The Flesh


Book: Tender is the Flesh is the second novel by Argentinian writer Agustina Bazterrica, and her first to be translated into English. It won the prestigious  2017 Clarín de Novela prize for a Spanish-language novel.

The smell of barbecue is in the air. They go to the rest area, where the farmhands are roasting a rack of meat on a cross. El Gringo explains to Egmont that they’ve been preparing it since eight in the morning, “So it melts in your mouth,” and that the guys are actually about to eat a kid. “It’s the most tender kind of meat, there’s only just a little, because a kid doesn’t weigh as much as a calf. We’re celebrating because one of them became a father,” he explains. “Want a sandwich?”

The impact of this paragraph changes drastically when you understand that the word ‘kid’ means ‘a human child’.

16th-century Dutch engraving of cannibalism in Brazil

In the tradition of Brave New World, Never Let Me GoThe Handmaid’s Tale and the film Soylent Green (which it references), Bazterrica’s novel describes a near-future society which  de-humanizes certain social groups in conventionally “unthinkable” ways in order to assure its own survival. Following a virus which has made all contact with animal flesh poisonous to humans, the meat industry has persuaded governments to legalize the breeding and slaughter of people. They are raised on breeding farms, genetically modified to speed their growth, carefully monitored by the Food Standards Agency. We learn more than we might wish to know about their slaughter and marketing, because our hero, Marcus, manages a slaughterhouse; he is also responsible for sales and distribution of so-called ‘special meat’. You may scoff at the science behind the “virus”; so does Marcus, who wonders if the whole affair was a government lie to solve overpopulation and its consequences. You may scoff at the idea that people would ever eat people: Marcus, who lived through the so-called “Transition”,  recalls how society evolved to accept butchers selling ‘brochettes made of ears and fingers […] eyeball liquor […and] tongue a la vinaigrette’. You may comfort yourself that human flesh is cumulatively poisonous to humans, but Wikipedia reassures that this is not necessarily the case; that cannibalism is historically ubiquitous; and that most other species are getting on with it.

Accuracy:  In all the clinically observed horror of industrialized cannibalism, the reader might forget that this book is equally about infertility and baby loss. Marcus is traumatized by both. He is separated from his wife, Cecilia, who left him when their infant son suffered a cot death. This was the final blow in a long chain of suffering: ‘ […] conversations about the possibility of adopting, phone calls to the bank, children’s birthday parties they wanted to escape, more hormones, chronic fatigue and more unfertilized eggs, tears, hurtful words, Mothers’ Days in silence, the hope for an embryo […], pregnancy texts thrown helplessly into the bin, fights, the search for an egg donor, questions about genetic identity, letters from the bank, the waiting, the fears, the acceptance that maternity isn’t a question of chromosomes, the mortgage, the pregnancy, the birth, the euphoria, the happiness, the death’. The themes of flesh-eating and baby loss merge vividly in a nightmare Marcus experiences, where ‘a wolf is eating some meat. Whenever he looks at the wolf, the animal raises its head and snarls. It bares its fangs. The wolf is eating something that’s moving, that’s alive. He looks closer. It’s his son, who’s crying but not making a sound’. Marcus experiences his grief so deeply that he is only able to break up and burn his son’s empty cot, months after the tragedy, on the day his life is turned upside down by the gift of a twenty-year-old purebred ‘female’.

Pregnant ‘females’ (meat stock are never referred to as men or women) are recognized as temperamentally different, and treated accordingly: they are often requested for game-hunts, because their condition makes them more ‘vicious’.  At breeding farms, pregnant females have their limbs removed because they ‘otherwise kill their fetuses by ramming their stomachs against the bars of their cage, or by not eating, by doing whatever it takes to prevent their babies from being born and dying in a processing plant’.  All females are artificially inseminated; any man who has sex with one of them is liable to be seized and sent to the slaughterhouse himself. We don’t experience the novel’s single labour scene in great deal, but when Marcus recognizes a crisis (‘the mattress is soaked with a brownish-green fluid’, implying fetal distress), it gets resolved with Call the Midwife-like celerity.

Style:  I can’t judge the style of the original Spanish, but translator Sarah Moses (who co-translated Harwicz’s Die, My Love, previously reviewed on this blog) has made her English version compulsively readable, keeping the novel’s few lyrical flights the right side of tendentious.  I was particularly impressed by her lexical skills with naming cuts of meat.

Empathy: This book is all about empathy. With whom we empathize; when and why we cease to empathize; what defines humanity, and family.  As Marcus reflects, ‘What do the workers [in the slaughterhouse] think about? Are they aware that what they hold in their hands was beating just moments ago? Do they care? Then he thinks that he actually spends most of his life supervising a group of people who, following his orders, slit the throats, gut, and cut up women and men as if doing so were completely natural. One can get used to almost anything, except the death of a child’.

The Pregnancy Test’s Verdict: Don’t read this  book over a rare steak. Stick to Quorn (if you can find it).

Négar Djavadi’s Disoriental

Book: Négar Djavadi’s Désorientale (2016), winner of numerous French and international book prizes; translated into English by Tina Kover as Disoriental (2018) for Europa Editions.

Accuracy: The book’s primary narrator, Kimiâ, switches between at least three different narratives: the troubled history of her Iranian family all the way back to her paternal grandmother’s birth in a remote Persian harem near the Caspian Sea; her family’s afterlife in Paris as refugees from the Iranian Revolution, including Kimiâ’s gradual recognition of her own sexuality; and the only narrative set in real time, the French fertility clinic where she anxiously waits to be called for artificial insemination. This last storyline punctuates and ultimately determines the novel’s course.  Kimiâ’s attitude to reproductive technology is compulsively written, varying from forensic to whimsical. Two examples:

While she’s inserting the tube, Dr Gautier explains to me that she’s depositing the sperm cells directly into my fallopian tubes, sparing them a large part of the journey. I’m concentrating on my breathing, and register the information only as a scientific fact of which I was previously unaware. “Directly into the fallopian tubes”, like those passengers who they let straight onto the airplane without going through all the formalities.


No hand to hold. [..] Just this long cardboard tube […] sitting on my knees. A long tube filled with Pierre’s defrosted, washed sperm (that’s how Dr Gautier described it to me). I can never imagine how, by what process, sperm could be washed. Every time I try, I get a picture in my head of a big sieve, like the one my maternal grandmother Emma used when she baked cakes.

If you’ve ever wondered what it feels like to schlep around the wards of a large French hospital, sitting alone while eyeing up (and being watched by) nervous couples elsewhere in the same queue, clutching a plastic tube of defrosted sperm, Disoriental is as accurate as it gets. CECOS, the clinic where Kimiâ and her gametes spend so much time, is a real place, open for donations.

Négar Djavadi

Style: Daringly full of allusions, from pop culture to Iranian history (to the extent of annoying the New York Times’ reviewer). It’s sentimental, sometimes appallingly tragic, but also fast-paced, funny, and ironic.

Empathy: Almost entirely told or focalized by female characters, none of Disoriental‘s core narratives stray far from death or childbirth (or both at the same time). Importantly, Djavadi also relates different forms of male experience: the lifelong estrangement of Kimiâ’s closeted gay uncle; the father who acknowledges an illegitimate son at the cost of his reputation; the father who treats his unexpected daughter like a son. The ruling parallel between biological reproduction and emotional re-integration is obvious enough to be tired, but Djavadi handles it with sensitivity and conviction.

Tina Kover

The Pregnancy Test’s Verdict: A positive result in more ways than one. Disoriental is a very modern book; Tina Kover was previously best known as a translator of 19th century French classics, including Georges Sand, the Goncourt brothers, and Dumas père. Not an obvious author-translator pairing, but one that germinated into a compellingly written novel.

Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments: From Darkness to Light


The Pregnancy Test is very excited to host our second guest blog post, this time from none other than the doyenne of literary Maternal Studies, Parley Ann Boswell! Read one for her fascinating review of Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments. (Those of you with subscriber access to the London Review of Books may be interested to compare Deborah Friedell’s opinion of the same book as ‘one long caper’). 

Margaret Atwood

Margaret Atwood announced in 2018 that she was writing a sequel to her 1985 novel The Handmaid’s Tale.  By then, the original novel had moved from our bookshelves and onto our screens, where Hulu had streamed new life into Atwood’s speculative story. Since then, we have been able to watch two more full seasons of The Handmaid’s Tale in which the characters in Gilead are projected through further struggles, and we anticipate another season in 2020. Some of us might have worried. How might another Handmaid novel by Atwood coexist in a world full of Handmaid adaptations, Halloween costumes, political references, and internet chatter?  Was there room in all of this for another novel?  Those of us who have loved this novel since 1985 might feel proprietary enough to have other worries.  Sequels—whether in print or on screen—are often disappointments. Would Atwood’s sequel be a disappointment?  Would she be able to sustain the world of Gilead?  Or would we feel let down?

Oh, who asks such silly questions?!  O ye of little faith, you readers who cannot trust the magic of Margaret Atwood’s storytelling!  Atwood’s novel The Testaments confirms, as ever, that she remains one of the great masters of storytelling in English.   The Testaments continues the harrowing story of a dystopian Gilead in which women’s bodies, and their capacities to grow babies inside their bodies, have become ground zero in the former United States of America.  Women, from Commanders’ wives to little girls, seem powerless in the Republic of Gilead, and their lives have become a battleground.  In The Testaments, once again we learn about this struggle not from the men who have created Godly Gilead, but from the battleground itself:  the women.  Living as trophies, slaves and broodmares, the subdued female characters find subversive ways to speak truth to power.

Protesters dressed as Handmaids
Protesters dressed as Handmaids

In The Testaments, fifteen years have passed since our Handmaid Offred ended her tale by stepping “up, into the darkness within; or else the light,” and we hear a trinity of female narrators whose stories eventually braid together (Tale 295). None of these voices is Offred’s.  Two voices are those of girls:  one living in Canada (Daisy/Nicole) and one in Gilead (Agnes Jemima), both of whose stories begin to make sense after we do some simple arithmetic and figure out that they just might be related to our Offred. The third storyteller, Aunt Lydia, we already know, if only superficially, from The Handmaid’s Tale. In The Testaments, she introduces Gilead to us and fills in some context for us, including flashbacks about how she became the most powerful Aunt in Gilead and about her relationship with the Commanders.

Aunt Lydia’s narration brackets The Testaments. She functions as the chorus in this tale of Gilead, suggesting the moral parameters that women face when they live in a world in which their bodies have defined them as tools, commodities, and sometimes collaborators. Lydia explains her relationship with her superior, Commander Judd.  “I believe he enjoys our little tête-à-têtes, for reasons that are complex and perverse.  He thinks of me as his handiwork:  I am the embodiment of his will” (Testaments 137).  If Lydia has convinced Judd that her body represents his will—which she proves to him with ruthless steeliness—then she has figured out how to subvert his power.  She uses Judd’s blind vanity, greed, and (in a remarkable reflection of our own time) his penchant for pubescent virgins, in a long game she is playing throughout the novel.   But she knows that she’s playing for real.

Our other, younger narrators: Daisy/Nicole of Toronto, Canada, and Agnes Jemima of Gilead, learn gradually how they fit into this ghastly Gileadean world. As they begin to understand their relationships to Gilead and to each other, their stories reveal their transformation from provincial teenaged girls who take their lives for granted, into courageous young women whose own losses and vulnerabilities mature them into warriors.  Eventually, Nicole and Agnes function together as the lynchpin of Aunt Lydia’s grand plan to take down the Commanders and Gilead. They both have individual talents to help them.  Throughout the novel, they show flashes of wry humor and they both have sharp observational skills.  They learn to use these skills, and not coincidentally, their bodies, to their advantage.  And, also not coincidentally, they both behave in ways that we might recognize from The Handmaid’s Tale.  They remind us of another vulnerable yet shrewd young woman we have met in Gilead, one without her own name:  Offred.

In interviews, Atwood has noted that she did not want to try to reproduce Offred’s voice again in The Testaments, and although we do hear and see her briefly near the end of the novel, she is not a major character.  Beyond her own tale, most of what we know about Offred we learn from the “Twelfth-and Thirteenth Symposiums on Gileadean Studies,” Atwood’s clever recreations of academic conferences, which serve as the codas for both novels.   Centuries have passed, and Gilead remains a curiosity and a scholarly discipline for historians, “Gilead Studies.”   From the 12th Symposium that closes The Handmaid’s Tale we learn that Offred recorded her tale, which was discovered on tapes in an old military trunk, hidden inside a brick wall somewhere in Maine.   From the 13th Symposium, we learn that Aunt Lydia wrote forbidden notes, hid them in forbidden library books, and backed them all up with forbidden microdots.

Discovered in Labrador two years after Offred’s tale came to light, Aunt Lydia’s testament has become the focus of the 13th Symposium. The Keynote speaker remarks that a graduate student found Aunt Lydia’s writings accidentally, and that these manuscripts represent a most significant contribution to studies of Gilead.  Historian Pieixoto (whom we first met at the 12th Symposium in The Handmaid’s Tale) explains that this is an exciting discovery because “first-hand narratives from Gilead are vanishingly rare—especially any concerning the lives of girls and women.  It is hard for those deprived of literacy to leave such records” (Testaments 412).  (Not incidentally, we have heard a reference to “lives of girls and women” earlier in The Testaments:  Aunt Lydia explains that she keeps forbidden books in her office, including “Jane Eyre, Anna Karenina, Tess of the d’Urbervilles, Paradise Lost, Lives of Girls and Women” (35).   Atwood has included a lovely homage here to Canada’s Nobel Prize winner Alice Munro, whose novel Lives of Girls and Women was published in 1971.)

Offred’s earlier contribution to Gilead Studies, on the other hand, was a tale without a text.  Without writing materials and in a hurry to escape, Offred left no written record—nothing on paper, no photos, no documents. Because her voice was flattened into text when it was transcribed by scholars many decades later, Offred tells her tale as a mute. She suggests the Old Testament Isaiah prophecy “then the tongues of the mute will sing” (Isaiah 35:6).  Offred’s mute voice haunts The Testaments. In the hagiography of Gilead, Offred becomes the prophet, the silent shroud who anticipates and sanctifies the testimonies of the later three narrators.  Our enslaved, pregnant Handmaid generates the original Gilead story, and her tale of suffering and forced pregnancy illuminates our way through The Testaments.

We can venerate Offred as the pregnant storyteller who labors over her story in the darkness, heralding the delivery of justice, elevating the voices of females, and anticipating the eventual downfall of Gilead.  But Offred is no martyr.  Aunt Lydia—former family court judge, teacher, ruthless Gilead enforcer, collaborator, spy—becomes the closest to martyr in The Testaments, and by her own hand.  Our beloved handmaid Offred is a vital middle-aged woman who has spent her years out of Gilead working for the Resistance.  Reuniting with her daughters in relative safety at the end of their long dangerous journey, Offred exclaims in language reminiscent of Louisa May Alcott’s Marmee in the final lines of Little Women, “Oh, my darling girls!” (Testaments 399).  Having carried and delivered her daughters, and having carried and delivered her story, Offred thrives, our pregnant warrior who brings darkness to light.

Parley Ann Boswell                                                          Eastern Illinois University


  • Louisa May Alcott, Little Women.  Orinda, California:  SeaWolf Press, 2019.
  • Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale.  NY:  Anchor Books, 1986.
  • _____.  The Testaments.  NY:  Penguin Random House LLC, 2019.
  • Alice Munro, Lives of Girls and Women.  NY:  Vintage, 1971.

Just Pure Rage: Ariana Harwicz and Die, My Love

Ariana Harwicz, Die, My Love (Matate, Amor), Charco Press, 2017. Translated by Sarah Moses and Carolina Orloff.

Accuracy “I’ve been needing the loo since lunch but it’s impossible to do anything other than be a mother. Enough already with the crying. He cries and cries and cries. I’m going to lose my mind. I’m a mother, full stop. And I regret it, but I can’t even say that. Who would I say it to? To the boy sitting on my lap, sticking his hand in my plate of cold leftovers, playing with a chicken bone? No! Leave that alone, you’ll choke. I chuck him a biscuit. He gives it back. […] I call my husband. I need reinforcements. While I’m dialling, the baby hangs off one of my shoulders. He’s going to tear me apart. […] Hello, listen love, I need you to come home now, I can’t go on like this. […]”

Yes, I think we can agree just from this passage that Die, My Love is pretty unflinchingly accurate in describing the daily routines of a stay-at-home mother caring for her tiny son, as an outsider marooned in the French countryside  her husband calls home. Told almost exclusively from her perspective (by turns fervid and comic), this short book follows an obsessive love affair against the background of a relationship stifled by parenthood.

Empathy  As above, full marks for empathy. The unnamed mother struggles to reconcile to a life violently re-shaped by childbearing (“I’m one person, my body is two”) while her husband seems happier pretending nothing is wrong (even suggesting they have another one). The narrator’s behaviour is troubling beyond the point of self-parody (she walks through a glass door; screams death threats at her husband; shoots an injured dog; identifies herself with the wild beasts of the forest) yet, even after an inconclusive spell in a therapy centre, everyone continues to trust her to look after her child. While at times her narrator’s tantrums and obsessive sexual fantasies challenge belief, Harwicz has a keen eye (and her translators have a keen ear) for the petty details that bedevil motherhood, like the narrator forgetting to pack a snack for her son on a visit to friends, or an outing to the seaside spoiled by the parents’ incompatibility(“It wasn’t until we were driving over the white lines of the road in complete silence that we realized we hadn’t even taken our son into the sea”).

Style Now jagged, now lyrical, always throwing questions at the reader and herself, moving in a heartbeat from desire and affection to fury and sadism, Harwicz’s narrator’s style is absurdly engaging, even contagious. There are nappies and pizzas, but there are also chainsaws and shotguns. Best not read around one’s children. Harwicz doesn’t just flag up the absurdity of motherhood; her narrator is gunning for the entire human condition. Here are some gems:

“My ovaries wring themselves out and there’s a blood clot in my knickers that runs down my legs. I don’t think I’m pregnant again, it’s just pure rage.”

“I hope the first word my son says is a beautiful one. That matters more to me than his health insurance. And if it isn’t, I’d rather he didn’t speak at all. I want him to say magnolia, to say compassion, not Mum or Dad, not water. I want him to say dalliance.”

“She lived in her body as though it were an infested house, as if she had to tiptoe through it trying not to touch the floor.”

The Pregnancy Test: Positive The Guardian regularly gives space to discussion of post-natal depression, which is important and laudable. It is even more important, however, to acknowledge the range of post-natal experience, positive and negative, depressive and obsessive; and to encourage women to talk about the shattering mental and physical experiences that come with giving birth to a baby and continue throughout the early years of motherhood. A recent contributor writes: “Nothing prepares you for the onslaught and the exhaustion, mainly because we don’t yet talk about motherhood honestly enough. We don’t talk about the “normal” brokenness nearly enough. I suppose a comparison could be bereavement, where it is arguably “normal” to feel broken for a while after losing a loved one. But if that brokenness goes on, month after month, to a point where someone feels like they can’t get their life back, then it needs to be addressed.” The importance of Harwicz’s book for readers is that she does address the “brokenness” of mothers but without pigeonholing this experience as PND. While sharing the metaphor of bereavement, Harwicz’s narrator’s experience transcends PND the way a planet eclipses a moon: “I was in mourning for a long time, but there came a moment when, like the widow who unlocks her front door for the first time, who eats dinner in silence for the first time, who gets into bed alone for the first time, I felt a sadness that was exhilarating, wild.”