Having commented in my Reading Highlights post about how little self-directed reading I did last year, I decided to start the year with just that, before returning to the Review TBR pile. What to choose? Many books jostled for attention, but in the end I chose Angela Savage’s novel Mother of Pearl because I felt it would be a warm-hearted but meaty read, just right for this time of year. I was right.
Let’s start with the meaty first. The subject matter is commercial surrogacy, in Thailand specifically. This surrogacy involving “farang” couples was banned in Thailand during the writing of this book, but that doesn’t invalidate it. Many novels have been written about behaviours, cultures, practices that have changed or disappeared – and, anyhow, commercial surrogacy still exists in various forms in different countries around the world. So, on many fronts, both contemporary and historical, Mother of Pearl has much to offer.
And what it offers is a sensitive portrayal of a very complex issue. On the surface, the novel is about a childless Australian couple paying a poor Thai woman to carry “their” baby (created using the husband’s sperm and a donor egg) but, as Savage wrote on novelist Amanda Curtin’s blog*, what specifically interested her were “the political, ethical, cultural and emotional aspects of overseas surrogacy”. This, of course, makes the book sound very much like an “issues” novel, and it is. However, Savage, who is an experienced and award-winning crime writer – I have reviewed her novel, The dying beach – has written a novel that shows not tells, that is in no way didactic, that explores the “issue” from multiple angles without moralising.
How does she do this? Partly by creating well-rounded and engaging characters, which include Meg (the would-be mother), her sister Anna (an experienced Southeast Asian aid worker), and surrogate mother Mod. There are others, including Meg’s husband Nate. The novel starts in 1998 with Mod who is, then, a 16-year-old girl. We learn of the role of temple culture in her life, and we hear her “fortune” told which says that her “good luck will be earned, not won”. The novel then jumps ten years and we are introduced to forty-year-old Anna, recently returned from Cambodia, and her 14-months-younger sister Meg who has, ostensibly, given up the idea of having a child after years of trying, including gruelling IVF rounds. However, at Anna’s place, she meets a gay couple with a child born to a Thai surrogate mother, and the seed is sown.
Who are the winners, who are the losers (Anna, paraphrased)
From here, the novel, like many modern novels, switches perspectives, primarily between Mod, Anna and Meg, to explore the emotions and motivations, the practice and legalities of commercial surrogacy, and the cultural implications in Thailand. Anna – who is experienced in Thai culture and, let us say, the “disinterested” party – is our main guide through all this. She is, I’d say, our voice, because she is the one concerned about the exploitative aspects of this surrogacy. However, she comes to see that it’s a little more complex than would appear on the surface. This is not to argue that such surrogacy is a good thing, but that neither is it a black-and-white issue.
I particularly liked the way Savage explored the different motivations of surrogate mothers through Mod’s spending time with other surrogates and potential surrogates. We learn not only of the need for money, but of factors like the desire to earn Buddhist merit and the exploitation of young Thai women by their boyfriends and fathers. Exploitation, we realise, is a complex beast.
So, the novel is meaty because it does tease out many of those “political, ethical, cultural and emotional” factors that Savage intended to do. Meg’s single-minded focus on having a child, and the pressure this creates on others, is quietly interrogated. Aid-worker Anna’s discomfort with the exploitativeness of commercial surrogacy is teased out, as she faces reassessing “the moral high ground, where she’d once felt so at home”. The financial, cultural and emotional implications for Mod are also genuinely explored.
However, the novel is also warm-hearted because it is non-judgemental. Our main characters aren’t perfect. Meg and Anna, in particular, have their sisterly squabbles, tensions and fallings-out, but their disagreements aren’t bitter, and they both “put their foot in it” at times. More importantly, though, Savage leaves it to the reader to consider the issues and decide where we stand, and why.
Finally, underpinning all this is the writing. Mother of Pearl, which is logically divided into three parts – Preconception, Gestation, Afterbirth – is an accessible novel. The alternating perspectives are easy to follow, the pacing is good, and the writing flows well. There are some perfect descriptions, like
Anna recoiled like a sea anemone poked with a stick. She was fixed to the rock face; everything moved around her.
but they are not overdone in a novel for which the narrative is the driving force. I was concerned for a while that Meg and Nate were too good to be true, given the stresses they’d been under for years, but Savage injected enough little cracks to reassure me that they hadn’t stepped out of a romance novel. Finally, there’s the perfectly apposite pearl motif, which is also handled with a light touch.
Mother of Pearl, then, respects the complexity of its “issue” without becoming polemical. In so doing, it discourages judgement where compassion should prevail, and yet is clear-eyed about the realities that make surrogacy so problematical. A good choice for my first book of 2021.
Lisa (ANZLitLovers) also appreciated this book.
Mother of Pearl
Transit Lounge, 2019
* Thanks to Lisa for providing the link to this post.