I just read Joanna Kavenna‘s second novel (third book), The Birth of Love. I was skeptical about the description of three or so different narrative threads–past, present, and future–about birth and its requisite processes. (Ew.)* But I was and am so madly deeply in love with Kavenna’s first book, Inglorious, that I didn’t hesitate to pick this one up.
The book confirms my love, but admittedly, it feels like the relationship has settled. We’re no longer–er, I’m no longer–in the throes of infatuation (though the flame is easily rekindled when I return to Inglorious). Rosa Lane of Inglorious has a mind burdened by literature and philosophy and all the ways they do not, cannot bear out in daily life.
What connects the two books is a thread of madness and the theme (explored and described by Michael Stone, the writer-character) of the “difference between the lone figure…and the many”:
Perhaps the many are so confident–dogmatic–only because they are among the many. Not because they have really thought–truly thought–about what they say. The solitary man must either say nothing…or shout to be heard.
In Inglorious, Rosa Lane, whose narrative begins when she quits her job by sending her boss an email, is surrounded by people who seem perfectly able to do what is expected on a daily basis. But she can’t cope with her mother’s death, make sense of billboards, maintain her relationships with men or women, pay Sharkbreath at the bank, or, generally, buck up. She constantly rewrites the same list of things to do (which serves as a lovely refrain with subtle variants), from Hoovering the living room to reading the comedies of Shakespeare, and “Plato, Aristotle, Confucius…and the rest.”
Both the madness and the lone figure motifs are heightened in The Birth of Love, though they don’t quite feel as heightened because they are also diluted, dispersed. I’m so very invested in Rosa Lane in Inglorious–in her accelerating madness and her lonely aloneness–and a tad less so with the historical Semmelweis and his present-day recreator Michael Stone and the prisoners in the year 2153, though I suppose I could have been if the book had been entirely about, for example, Semmelweis and Stone. Plus the more interesting madness and solitary-figure-vs.-masses themes compete with (and lose to) the birth/love themes. Ah well.
I’m also fond of her nonfiction book The Ice Museum, described as “an account of a poetic tour through northern lands,” which I had on hand when I traveled to Norway for the first time.
*Been there, done that.