Such weighty topics might imply a heavy and challenging read, and while some parts are certainly difficult to read, overall Nettel manages to make the book very readable. She achieves this in the matter-of-fact, unsentimental way she approaches her subject matter, keeping the tone grounded while being true to the emotions at the core of the story. This realism is one of the book’s main strengths, and enables Nettel to portray the complexities of motherhood in the way that she does.
What’s unique about Still Born is the non-judgemental way that Nettel portrays Alina and Laura. Alina is by no means a perfect mother, and Laura rejects motherhood completely, but neither of their decisions are given any moral dimension by the author. Rather, their choices are shown to be part of who they are as people, and their emotional responses to be complex and nuanced. This is in contrast to how society views motherhood, which often involves glorifying it and shaming mothers who don’t live up to the impossibly high standard set for them. While for many it can be a rewarding and joyful experience, it is often taboo to talk about the more difficult, ambivalent, or even negative feelings that result. It was refreshing to see this flipside of motherhood discussed in Still Born.
Alongside the main narrative, there is a sub-plot of Laura bonding with a neighbour and her son. Nettel draws parallels between the two plots, deepening the themes and showing different types of motherhood. Elsewhere she uses imagery to make her point, adding a poetic element to an otherwise realistic narrative. Altogether it adds up to a rich and textured portrait of the lives of two twenty-first century women.
Part of the story is based on a real event. A friend of Nettel’s had a child born with a neurological condition, with complications in the pregnancy that she replicated in the novel. Though the accompanying storylines are fiction, this friendship forms the heart of Still Born. The book is a testament to women whose experiences of motherhood don’t match up with the ideal, but who nevertheless make the best of their decisions. It’s a remarkable achievement.
Review by Charlie Alcock