Still Born

Still Born is Guadalupe Nettel’s fourth novel and her third to be translated into English (by Rosalind Harvey who also translated After the Winter). It is a thoughtful examination of motherhood, which it explores across the stories of the narrator, Laura, her friend, Alina, and her neighbour, Doris. Laura is convinced that having children is not for her, and, in fact, that more women should be strong enough to resist the societal pressure to reproduce:

“For years I tried to convince my girlfriends that procreating was a hopeless mistake. I told them that children, no matter how sweet and loving they were in their best moments, would always represent a limit on their freedom, not to mention the physical and emotional cost they bring about…”

Her decision costs her more than one relationship, but a number of her friends, including Alina, agree with her. Until, that is, Alina changes her mind:

“With great tact, almost fearfully, she told me that she respected my decision but no longer shared my point of view. She did now want to get pregnant.”

A lesser novelist might have continued to contrast Laura’s childlessness with Alina’s pregnancy, but Nettel challenges the reader beyond the black and white of having / not having children. Alina soon falls pregnant but there are indications that all is not well – “the brain is ever so slightly smaller than the other organs” – and Alina is eventually told that the baby is unlikely to live:

“It’s you who are keeping her alive, but her brain isn’t capable of guaranteeing her autonomy. She will die when we separate her from you.”

Alina now has the emotional trauma of giving birth to a baby she has been told will not live, but even at this point Nettel is not finished forcing the reader to consider uncomfortable questions of life and death. Rather than die at birth, Alina’s baby, Ines, survives, although brain damaged. (Hence the titles double meaning in English – the belief the baby will be stillborn, and the suggestion it is still born when it is expected not to survive).  The choice of having a child now takes on a different intensity for Alina and her husband Aurelio.

While this would be enough for any novel, Nettel adds a further strand in the form of Laura’s neighbour, Doris, and her young son, Nicolas. When they first move in, Laura describes them as “a woman with a little boy who seems dissatisfied with life to say the least.”

“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.”

Despite her lack of interest in children, Laura slowly gets to know Nicolas. As you may imagine, there are reason for his behaviour: his father, who was abusive, died in an accident, and Doris has struggled to cope both with the aftermath of the abuse and life as a single parent. As Nicolas explains to Laura, “Ever since my dad died, she forgot how to be happy.” As the novel progresses, Doris becomes increasingly withdrawn and takes to her bed, leaving Laura a de facto parent to Nicolas. Eventually Doris sends Nicolas to stay with her sister, asking Laura to take him to the bus:

“I couldn’t sleep all night thinking about how Nicolas was getting on and how stupid I had been not to go with him.”

Her time with Nicolas does not make Laura want to be a mother, but it does make her less resolute in her opposition to parenthood, as does, in a different way, the experience of Alina. In alternating the two stories, Nettel allows them to resonate, contrasting the different difficulties and joys of being a parent.  However, it would be naive to see this as a ‘pro-parenthood’ novel – Nettel presents the issues with the complexity they deserve, and also includes Laura’s relationship with her own mother, and Alina’s with her nanny. (One area the novel rather avoids is the clear disparity in wealth between Doris, who is entirely unsupported, and Alina who not only has a caring husband – also rather neglected in the narrative – but can hire a live-in nanny). Such minor criticism apart, this is a novel which takes the topic of motherhood head on and with some bravery by presenting both a severely disabled child and a troubled child whose mother cannot cope. It does so without condemnation, instead seeking to provide understanding and a little hope.


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12 Responses to “Still Born”

  1. kaggsysbookishramblings Says:

    This does indeed sound a brave novel, Grant. Parenthood is a complex subject at the best of times, and one which can really polarise people. It’s full of so many risk and worries too, so it sounds as if the author has done it justice.

  2. JacquiWine Says:

    Goodness, this sounds incredibly powerful and really well judged. Clearly the work of a very skilled writer, unafraid to explore painful issues around motherhood in an unflinching way. It’s probably not for me right now, but I’ll certainly keep it in mind for the future, especially as it’s a Fitzcarraldo title.

  3. lauratfrey Says:

    This sounds really good. I’m usually not interested in novels that tackle ambivalence around motherhood. maybe because I was never ambivalent about it myself. But this sounds very nuanced.

  4. Books of the Year 2022 Part 2 | 1streading's Blog Says:

    […] Still Born is also a political novel, but here the politics are personal. Nettel is not the first writer to consider the pros and cons of having children, but she asks the questions here in a particularly nuanced way. The novel tells two stories of two women: the narrator, who has made the conscious decision not to have children, and one of her friends, who falls pregnant. Both women are put in a position where their beliefs are challenged: the former by the neglected child of a neighbour, the latter by giving birth to a child who is not expected to survive. Never preachy, the novel makes a genuine attempt to explore the concept of motherhood. […]

  5. International Booker Prize Predictions 2023 | 1streading's Blog Says:

    […] also have some eligible Latin American authors. I would be delighted to see Guadalupe Nettel’s Still Born feature and Alejandro Zambra has two (very short) novels: Bonsai – a new translation by Megan […]

  6. International Booker Prize 2023 | 1streading's Blog Says:

    […] – such consistency is remarkable given that the judging panel changes entirely each time. Still Born is one of two novels on the list I have read, and I was very keen to see it there. The Birthday […]

  7. International Booker Prize Shortlist Predictions 2023 | 1streading's Blog Says:

    […] are Georgi Gospodinov’s Time Shelter (translated by Angela Rodel) and Guadalupe Nettel’s Still Born (translated by Rosalind Harvey). Both are novels unafraid to tackle serious topics in an […]

  8. Claire 'Word by Word' Says:

    Brilliant novel and deep dive into some complex issues around non-conventional mothering, I thought it was incredibly well done and so great to see it shortlisted.

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