Savage, Angela. Mother of Pearl. Sydney: Transit Lounge, 2019. RRP: $29.99, 320pp, ISBN: 9781925760354
Meg is an Australian woman, who, after many years of trying and fruitless IVF treatments, has almost given up on her hope of having a child. She discovers the possibility of paying a Thai woman to act as a surrogate and goes for it; her sister Anna, an aid worker who speaks the language and has lived in Thailand for many years, tries to help her. Eventually they engage Mod, a young mother, to take on the role of Meg’s surrogate. This is the basic storyline of Mother of Pearl. It is an exploration as well as an education on how surrogacy works in Thailand that looks at the lives of both surrogates and the hopeful mothers to be.
The writing does a great job of telling the story. The narrative is clear, detailed, and interesting as it draws you into the lives of its characters. If you want to read the facts on how surrogacy works in Thailand, how people in Australia connect with it, where to go, what to do, this is for you. Mother of Pearl will also tell you something of the lives, language and customs of Thai people.
As the story moved forward, I realised that I would like to see Ms Savage explore in greater depth the pain of not being able to have a child. Meg is a woman who is aching to have one, and this pain, this emptiness, should be the driver of the story, but it is not given enough grunt, leaving the reader struggling to identify with the character who should most have her empathy.
‘the grief, when it came, hit Meg like a landslide. . . .years of pain and crushing disappointment . . . ‘ (134)
This gets close to making us feel something, but I want to hear the primal scream, sense the tears on her cheeks, feel what she feels when she looks at another person’s baby;
Willem peeled back a muslin canopy to reveal a baby, bald, fair and….sound asleep.
“She’s beautiful,” Meg said. (24)
that’s all the reader gets of Meg’s reaction—but we are told Meg has a huge reaction to every baby she comes across. I want to hear something visceral about her feelings here, something with power. If I imagine myself in Meg’s position, the sight of a new babe would completely undo me. In my secret heart I’d ache to lift the baby out of its bassinet and run away with it, kiss its eyes, its cheeks, its tiny toes. I’d want to place my nipple in her mouth and feel her hand soft and warm on my breast, and then change her nappy while she coos and giggles with delight.
I need to feel more connected to Meg; I’d like her longing laid bare so that that I can feel her disappointment sliding like rain from one page to the next. It is this depth that I miss in the story. It’s our inner selves we want to find reflected in the other created world; it’s the reason fiction works, that any art works.
Apart from this reservation, the novel is excellent in its portrayal of middle-class Australia and its relation to everyday life in Thailand, where the people are in a cycle of hard work for little reward. The author handles scenes involving surrogates, potential parents and the in-between medical staff particularly well. The dialogue and action is reflective of the differences in culture that each character, often in a state of ignorance, does her best to accommodate.
‘Laaen dtaae khoon. Up to you. Khun Anna made it sound simple, as if the expectations of the farang parents and the obligations Mod felt towards them might disappear like steam rising from a hot road after rain.’ (229)
Angela Savage obviously knows her subject and how to make it accessible. Her style, understated as it is, reveals the situation of both sides of surrogacy in a way that makes the reader alive to its many implications and ways in which it can go wrong, not only medically but in psychological/emotional damage as well. Mod has to be absent from her own two-year-old son for a year; a sacrifice, but one she sees as a way to ‘make merit.’ Meg does her best to be aware and appreciate this sacrifice, but can only think and act out of her own experience and angst. As they say in the classics, it’s complicated. Read it and see.
Originally from the east coast of the United States, Patricia Johnson has had stories and poetry published in dotdotdash, Re-Placement 2008, and Lines in the Sand, 2008, Windmills Spring, 2013, as well as in online journals. She has been an editor for dotdotdash magazine, covering poetry and short stories. She is the current President of the Fellowship of Australian Writers, Western Australia. Her latest project is a ghost story of novella size, currently looking for a publisher :).