Victoria University Press, $24.95,
Dr Amelia Walsh is an abortionist and the room of the title is her consulting room. A succession of women sit in her patient’s chair and respond in various ways to their situation – they are angry, terrified, despairing, numbed, defiant, away with the fairies, hard-nosed or off-hand. Each consultation throws a different light on the central issue, which is never fudged. I find I want to fudge it in describing it, and say all the pregnant women decide to “go ahead”, to “have a termination”, but Laurence Fearnley herself is too clear-eyed to resort to euphemisms and similar strategies of avoidance. After talking to the doctor, a patient has her abortion and so a life – however vestigial – comes to an end. Once and once only the action moves upstairs to the operating room and we find out exactly how that ending comes about.
Yet this novel is neither a horror story nor a roman à clef; it’s too good to be either when it sticks to its main theme. That theme is life and death. Deaths of other kinds flow round the Christchurch clinic. And the characters’ lives are lived in the illumination that spreads out from what goes on in this focal place, however much secrecy surrounds a particular abortion and however long ago other lives were or weren’t aborted in their turn. It’s a powerful basic idea, even a mythic one, and the successive consultations in the room become a kind of Greek chorus alongside the action. They parallel what goes on in other parts of the novel’s world but, more importantly, they provide a recurring, unstated comment on it.
The nearest and most omnipresent of the sites beyond the clinic itself is at its entrance. There, protesters keep watch and do their stuff. The doctor and her nurse react differently to the protesters at different times; they get on with their work and manage to ignore them, deride them, fear them. Some of the banners at the gate include the word “Jesus”, and the action of the novel takes place over the Christmas period; so the most momentous birth in the Christian heritage, with its promise of eternal life, underlies the recurring failure to give birth enacted inside the clinic. Such subtleties and ironies abound in this beautifully conceived narrative (pun intended).
Here is an example. It’s Christmas Eve and the doctor’s hard at work:
Amelia took hold of each of the two legs and pulled them apart. The hole became larger and she could see into the cavity which opened before her. She reached her hand into the stainless steel bowl which sat on the table to her left and scooping up a large amount of stuffing she thrust it inside the turkey … She noticed how the bird’s body became fuller, firmer, as if it was reinventing itself as a living bird, and once the body was full it would also grow feathers, feet and head and walk off the table to the garden outside … For a moment she looked at the bird, lost in the thought that she had put something back into an empty space, that her hands were capable of performing that task as well as the other, the removal of parts.
Laurence Fearnley breaks through the contemporary evasion that prevents a proper connection of life with death. It happens in the abortion clinic, of course, but the perception fans out in its implicit associative way to make me also think uncomfortably of meals eaten in the company of the starving who appear on the television screen – as well as of pink jump-suits in Florida retirement villages. She shocks, but at the same time she transcends her own power to shock. Amelia may have had twisted reasons for becoming an abortionist and she fears she’s becoming hard and uncaring in her work so that her impulsive acts of fellow-feeling take her by surprise. But she never loses the reader’s sympathy in the life-and-death aspects of her being because they make her not only deeply interesting but human. The book begins and ends with violent deaths that aren’t abortions; we hear of people dying and suffering the whole way through; Amelia is lonely and unhappy; and – mostly – the novel moves and excites and compels the reader on.
Mostly. The trouble is that there are two narratives, one that works and one that doesn’t. The second strand runs along beside the first successful one in a fitful way and takes us somewhere that’s not worthy of its author, a place that’s too far distant from the unifying myth. In it Amelia drinks Bordeaux from the bottle while eating porridge, fails to hear the music at a concert because she’s afraid the pianist’s page-turner will turn two pages at once, and listens without complaint to a long and tedious conversation about the politics of the new Christchurch art gallery – all this without any sense of authorly connection with the forward-thrusting themes of life and death. Did Laurence Fearnley move away from her own vision from time to time to avoid being too “heavy”? Are these scenes sops to an imagined reader who is thought to need a bit of light relief and can’t take too many basic truths? It’s hard to tell.
She doesn’t need to write an ordinary novel, or even ordinary segments in an otherwise extraordinary one. She’s a myth-maker in a country and an era in need of its own myths. Perhaps all societies turn into taboos issues that are insoluble problems if viewed only from inside the shared framework of thought. It takes a good fiction writer, someone who doesn’t go for the simplistic option and say abortion is either murder or it isn’t, to release the complexities we need to become aware of, if we are to consider our seriously disconnected attitudes to life and death.
Shelagh Duckham Cox is a Wellington writer. Room has been shortlisted in the Fiction Section of this year’s Montana New Zealand Book Awards.