The Birth of Love

  • Driven, risked and achieved, The Birth of Love is shaped with rare accomplishment and integrity. Shifts of register alarm and excite. But Joanna Kavenna's cool and measured control wins our trust, carrying us, in the heat of the matter through circuits of pain and disquiet, to beautiful resolution.

    Iain Sinclair

    In Vienna in 1865, Dr Ignaz Semmelweis has been hounded into an asylum by his medical peers, ridiculed for his claim that doctors' unwashed hands are the root cause of childbed fever. In present-day London, Bridget Hayes juggles the needs of her young son, husband, and mother as she plans her home birth, unprepared for the trial she is about to endure. Somewhere in 2153, in a world where humans are birthed and raised in breeding farms, Prisoner 730004 is on trial for concealing a pregnancy.

    From three perspectives spanning centuries, this novel explores childbirth, the most basic experience of women and men, from the slaughterhouse of primitive medicine to a futuristic vision of technological oppression. The Birth of Love is a powerful novel of science and faith, madness and compromise, and the epic journey of motherhood.


    The Birth of Love is published in the UK by Faber. It is published by Henry Holt in the USA. It has been translated into Italian, Czech, Chinese, Romanian, Greek, among other languages. For further translation rights contact RCW or the author.

  • ... Uninhibitedly truthful...forceful and daring and relevant...To surrender yourself to the revelations and then to come back with the assertions of prose: that is the new heroism of the woman writer, and Kavenna is in the vanguard of it.

    Rachel Cusk, Observer

    The book‘s provocations are fascinating, and few writers have matched her ruthlessly naturalistic depiction of modern childbirth as half farce, half horror story.

    The New Yorker

    Once upon a time, love in novels tended decorously to resolve into marriage. We‘ve long since become used to its gleeful anatomising as sex and lust; but Joanna Kavenna‘s new novel takes readers into terrain that is still relatively virgin—the visceral, slippery business of birth, and its human intimacies...[A] heady and ultimately moving annexation of fertile terrain for fiction.

    Tom Chatfield, Prospect

    Kavenna tracks her [Brigid‘s] moods, her superficial perceptions and the deeper urges of childbirth brilliantly...[T]he description of her labour is awful and thrilling...[T]he final section ties up the stories in an exciting, headlong race towards redemption and new possibilities.

    Lucy Dallas, Times Literary Supplement

    ...[A] meditation on orthodoxies and love‘s ambitious and original as her prize-winning first novel, Inglorious.

    Elizabeth Buchan, Sunday Times

    A braided narrative twisting together seemingly disparate stories over a three-century span, The Birth of Love demands close attention, but it also yields new pleasures and challenges. Those multiple stories, it turns out, are not so disparate after all.

    While some of the most compelling scenes are told from the perspective of Brigid Hayes, a middle-aged, contemporary Londoner in labor with her second child, we also get her husband's distinctive vantage point as he views "the terrifying beauty of the birth -- the gory sundering." Brigid's labor is ultimately full of the medical interventions she hoped to avoid, but the description of her struggle in an enlightened age proves as suspenseful as the historical scenes depicting horrifying medical practices.

    Kavenna...finishes with tremendous narrative force, and the depiction of birth in the novel's final pages is riveting. She manages to pull tighter and tighter a mighty number of scientific, mythical, historical and philosophical strands, all while holding the cerebral and the worldly in good balance. Nervy enough to give her novel the lofty title The Birth of Love, Kavenna is ambitious and inventive enough, finally, to earn it. She's a compelling and original writer, and we readers -- I'm talking female and male here -- should keep our eyes on her.

    Valerie Sayers, Washington Post

    Four starkly disparate stories, all anchored in the agonising mystery of childbirth, lock together in Joanna Kavenna's ambitious second novel. Each account is framed by its character's grasp, perhaps partial, of the elemental force of procreation, either as an instinctive urge or a physically shattering, dangerous process. Fulsome with gory detail, Kavenna's rich emotional palette conjures mortal terror, exhausted surrender and endorphin-soaked, unalloyed bliss as well as subtler responses to her maternal material: indefinable yearning, humility in the face of the miraculous, a persistent questioning of women's ownership of their bodies. ...

    The Birth of Love is replete with complex nuances and presumptions that surround the state of motherhood and tangentially connect to ideas of madness in ways that recall the spiky outrage of Kate Millett's seminal The Loony Bin Trip.

    ...Bear[s] out the promise of Inglorious, Kavenna's courageous debut novel of untethered nervous breakdown, which used spare prose and arresting imagery to chart the decline, mental and social, of a seemingly competent professional into a homeless woman...Elegantly crafted and compelling...[it] touches a core of humanity articulated, rather surprisingly, by the hermit-like Stone, when he reflects how we are all "governed by ancient impulses – a desire for human company, love, intimacy, family, a fear of darkness and the unknown, an aversion to pain, a curious sense of hope, despite everything".

    James Urquhart, Independent on Sunday

    Literature is full of death and sex, but the third part of the elemental trilogy that defines our lives – birth – is relatively absent. Babies there are aplenty, but when it comes to the act of parturition itself, with its rich quota of joy, peril and gore, things go strangely quiet. You could cite Kitty in Anna Karenina, or certain scenes in AS Byatt and Doris Lessing, but the list soon peters out.

    Joanna Kavenna‘s novel changes all that.

    ...Kavenna has made [Brigid] a poignant everywoman, the central panel in a powerful triptych...You don‘t have to have given birth to enjoy it, though I‘d certainly recommend it to anyone who has.

    Jonathan Gibb, Financial Times

    Depending on your position, childbearing is a stupendous miracle, a persistent hell or `an exercise in optimism' -- and at times all and more at once. But in Orange Prize-winning British author Joanna Kavenna's new novel, women's eternal predicament (and ensuing issues of parenting and being parented) anchors a slick, ambitious narrative deftly entwined with life's other complex balancing act: keeping hold of reason and sanity.

    The four-part narrative is never mawkish, shifting from past to present to future and back with steady prose and a meticulous design that leaves neither the subtle nor symbolic to chance...From Kavenna's protean novel emerges a brilliant whole.

    Christine Thomas, Miami Herald

    Clever, ambitious ... it is a tribute to [Kavenna‘s] skill that she handles her four narrative strands without lapsing into confusion; the reader is deftly directed on a journey through time and place ... Stone‘s catastrophic loss of nerve at his launch party makes painful but wholly credible reading. Even more sympathetically depicted is Brigid, a woman struggling to deal with the onset of her second labour and the demands of her little son. I have rarely read such an accurate description of the emotional ambivalence of this stage of motherhood, the weird combination of boredom and passion, the seesawing between a sense of personal insignificance and its exact opposite ... Brigid‘s world, created with humour and sharp observation, reminded me of the best of Helen Simpson‘s short stories.

    Charlotte Moore, Spectator

    Her characters ... are enjoyably individual. Kavenna‘s skill in flitting between markedly different circumstances and fantastical times is evident and she crafts her tale using snappy paragraphs and free-flowing narrative. A wonderfully imagined story.

    Julian Fleming, Sunday Business Post

    It is hard to deny its complexity and verve, or to remain unmoved by the bittersweet vision of motherhood it presents.

    Edmund Gordon, Literary Review

    ...[A]s gruelling an account of labour as poor old Kristin Lavransdatter's hard time in the straw, in Sigrid Undset's Norwegian classic...[T]he writing is brilliant...

    Ursula Le Guin, Guardian

    Kavenna won the Orange Award for New Writers with Inglorious. Now she‘s back with an equally singular novel about motherhood. In Vienna, in 1865, Dr Ignaz Semmelweis is bundled into a mental asylum for his theories. In modern London, Michael Stone publishes a novel about Semmelweis, while Brigid Hayes worries about the birth of her second child. And in 2153, when children are born and raised in special breeding centres, someone gets illegally knocked up and Prisoner 730004 goes on trial for concealing it. Past, present and future are cleverly woven into a meditation about the shattering experience of birth.

    Kate Saunders, Times

    Fascinating novel...It is beautifully written ...This is a novel with a strong message, reflected in the title – that love and our emotional response to childbirth are central to the experience and should be valued.

    Highly symbolic and wonderfully suspenseful, Kavenna‘s distinctive voices from the past, present and future join the proclaim the wonder of birth.

    Library Journal

    Procreation in three disparate centuries and societies is the primal subject of a prize-winning British writer‘s original second novel...Kavenna displays technical dexterity while offering a textured assessment – from the corporeal to the cerebral – of a totemic subject...Surprisingly affecting.

    Kirkus Reviews

    Her writing is sharp, her four narrative voices are nuanced and distinctive, and her emotional, intellectual and stylistic range is impressive.

    Publishers Weekly
  • The Moon

    Dear Professor Wilson,

    I am sorry to disturb you from your work; however, I must ask your advice about a most distressing series of meetings I had today at the asylum. As you know, I have been visiting the asylum in Lazarettgasse for some years now, examining the inmates of this accursed place, better to understand the conditions which cause the individual to discard the faculty of reason. Today I met an inmate in such a terrible and perplexing condition, as to question every notion of lunacy I have thus far elaborated. I have— with reference to the many visits I make to “lunatics”— been developing a theory that what we call madness is often simply a rearrangement of the human personality, or an arrangement which in some way offends more ordinary sensibilities. If we were to abandon the notion of sanity as strictly distinct from madness we would save many from suffering. We would perceive that madness is a lunar condition, a condition of revelation and vision, and thereby we who have allowed our perceptions to be veiled by conventional observance can sometimes learn from those we refer to as lunatics. There are many forces within the human soul which we refuse to acknowledge, many ancient presences we have turned away from, and I suspect that these often command those we call lunatic, and cause them to behave in a way we cannot understand. This is my unpopular theory; yet I discovered today a case as resistant to my theorizing as to more popular theories of madness. The man is in dire need of help.

    I arrived at the asylum this morning at 9:00 a.m. and rang the bell. The door was opened, as usual, by one of the burly orderlies, who ushered me into the anteroom. The room is intended to appear homely; there are some armchairs and bookshelves with innocuous books of the hour upon them, and at the centre of the room, above the fireplace, is a mediocre painting of the Alps. Everything is superficially nondescript; yet I always think as I stand there, it is the room in which so many of the inmates are committed by their families, and are taken away wailing and pleading, in horrible fear.

    Herr Meyer soon arrived, who is in charge of the asylum. He is always very smart and efficient, yet over the years I have come to regard him as an unpleasant man, quite brutalized by his work, or perhaps drawn to it precisely because of the vicious elements of his nature. He smells of cruelty, and his eyes are sharp and vigilant. His manner is sly, and I generally acknowledge him with a cursory good day and proceed to my business. This morning, however, he was rather excited— licking his lips, even, with a thick pink tongue— and he said, “A very interesting case, the case of Herr S. Came here two weeks ago. Consigned to our care by some friends. A violent and incontinent man.”

    “What manner of lunatic is he?” I asked.

    “Well- spoken. Clearly once an educated man. Accuses himself of murder. And others, too. He cannot give you precise names, however; he finds it hard to recall specific details. This is an aspect of his madness. You should see him for yourself,” he said, nodding in his insidious conspiratorial manner.

    “I should be glad to. Do you have any more information about him?”

    Herr Meyer adopted his most self-important tone. “Oh, I cannot reveal the further details to you, my good man. The family has asked me to maintain the strictest secrecy around Herr S. His identity must remain obscure to outsiders such as you. You surely understand, that my first concern is the protection of my patients and their families?”

    I responded with the briefest of nods, and he, smirking a little, led me through the asylum, where there were rooms furnished with the damned, and then dark corridors lined with cells. There may be worse places on earth than Vienna’s public asylum but at present I cannot imagine what corner of the globe might hold them. Its corridors echo with a ragged chorus— each madman finding his own discord, some of them little more than whoops and cackles, others strident and jangling. They rail, oh how they rail against those who sent them here, and those who have not come for them, and they know— at one level I believe they know— that they have been abandoned. The ones who do not talk, they turn expressions of such despair upon you, it is hard to think that they are beyond all comprehension. As we entered the communal rooms I was briefly held back by the smell of faeces and decay— but I have long been visiting these mad houses, and have sadly grown accustomed to this noxious atmosphere and all the suffering to which it attests. (Indeed I believe these poor individuals are hastened to their ends by the severity of the atmosphere in which they exist, that it is quite impossible for any human to be cured in these conditions, and the asylums in their present state must only ever be a prison for the lunatic. I have been campaigning along these lines for a few years, but my efforts have so far been in vain.) As we walked I recognized a number of the long- term residents— an ageing man in a grimy black suit, a tattered handkerchief in his pocket, one boot off and one boot on. He would meander around, saying very little, and then he would stop on one leg, or he would take ten skipping steps and then two broad strides, like a child playing a game. He was hesitating in the middle of the room, until Herr Meyer pushed him roughly aside. We passed another fellow I had seen many times before, a prematurely aged man with matted blond hair, who talked incessantly, mostly of colours, as if he were the author of a meticulous system—“And there is the red. And there is the black and the blue. And there is the purple. And now the red once more . . .” and so on. I have talked several times to this man, hoping to discern his system, if one exists, but I have not yet understood it. He sounded as if he came from Salzburg, and I had been told that no one came to visit him. He, too, received the rough edge of Herr Meyer’s shoulder, because he presumed to approach us, and thus rebuffed, turned away. “Now the black, and then the blue . . .”

    Herr Meyer kept giving me odious smiles, as if we were sharing a marvellous joke. “I demand a hearing, I demand a hearing,” said one of them as I passed, while Meyer snorted as if this was a sublime quip and ushered me on. His absolute and abiding assumption was that these people were worthless, subhuman, simply because their reason had failed. Men such as Meyer perceive their asylums as private kingdoms, governed by their own brutal laws, and they treat the inmates like animals, for the most part, as if madness has deprived them of all humanity. Despite all the reforms in our legislation this continues to be the orthodoxy in many such places. I sometimes suspect that were Herr Meyer deprived of his fiefdom, he would himself fall out of the realm of the “sane” and be instantly confined himself. Indeed one must observe that it is a very debased civilization which allows Herr Meyer to be grand arbiter over such fragile human souls!

    Water trickled down the walls, a steady drip, and I thought of those lunatics with this constant noise in their ears, and all the remorseless ways in which they were stripped of dignity and deprived of any hope of recovery. We entered an area in which the inmates were confined to cells, and everything was cast into shadow, the sounds indistinct, though no less miserable. Now Herr Meyer stopped at a cell, and with a sardonic flourish, opened the door. A man was sitting in the corner, in chains. The cell was so dark I could hardly distinguish his features. He seemed from what little I could discern to be blunt- featured and stocky, and he was sitting very quietly, staring into space. Herr Meyer rattled his keys, and said in his leering way, “Herr S, there’s someone to see you.” He addressed the patient as if he had no claim to any form of kindness, and Herr S refused to respond. I wondered if he could not endure the nature of his confinement, and thereby refused to acknowledge his keeper. Or if his madness took him in the catatonic way and made him mute.

    “Oh Herr S,” said Meyer, in a taunting tone, and I said, “That is enough, I will speak to this man alone, thank you.”

    “He’s chained up and cannot trouble you,” said Herr Meyer, unabashed and still presuming to be conspiratorial. Then he removed himself, and I turned to consider the man before me.

    For the first few minutes Herr S did not look up. He seemed to be deep in thought and I hesitated to disturb him. As my eyes adjusted to the gloom I perceived his hair had fallen out in clumps, and his skin was drawn tight, like that of a reptile. His hands were covered in scratches, and there was a livid bruise on his forehead, a swelling on his mouth; testifying— I imagined— to the rough treatment he had already received from Herr Meyer’s attendants.

    After a time I said “Herr S” again, and he lifted his head. Even then he stared into space, as if he did not see me.

  • Joanna Kavenna on maternity and her novel
    The Literateur, 1 August 2011

    Joanna Kavenna: 'When I got pregnant I wanted to write something about the very bizarre process'
    Guardian, 15 June 2010

    Joanna Kavenna on 'The Birth of Love'
    The Thought Fox, 4th May 2010

    Joanna Kavenna on the labor of 'Birth'
    PBS, 15 June 2010

    Mystery of childbirth
    Oxford Times, 3 June 2010

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