Allen & Unwin, 2020
Ostensibly the story of an IVF mix-up, The Mothers is the story of three women in search of family and identity. The expectations and demands of a society based on family units affects them all and to some extent leads to some aberrant and essentially out of character behaviour.
Grace and her husband Dan have had six unsuccessful attempts at IVF and their lives are totally enveloped in the desire for a pregnancy and live birth. Priya and her husband Nick are attending the same fertility clinic and are also struggling to achieve a successful outcome. At the same time, they have problems with their marriage which come to a head, causing them to separate. Ashley Li is a young doctor at the fertility clinic, deeply committed to her patients, living without having known her father and now in a relationship with her (older) boss.
When Grace gives birth to a child bearing no resemblance to either herself or her husband, she at first is too absorbed in the joy of motherhood to pay it much mind, but as time goes on she becomes increasingly panicked by what others may think of her clearly Asian baby. The revelation of a possible mistake by the clinic throws her into a moral dilemma and then into complete terror at the prospect of losing her much awaited child, Sam.
Meanwhile, Priya has drifted into a rather desultory existence, renting a seaside flat, obsessing over Nick’s imagined love life, taking time out from work to paint and recover from her grief at both failing to conceive and the collapse of her marriage. Meanwhile Ashley becomes more and more concerned that something terribly wrong has happened and, being an ethical soul, she cannot let it rest despite the view and consequent ire of her boss/lover.
When Priya learns of the probable mistake, she worries at it and cannot let it rest either, despite her initial reaction to do so. She wants what is best for the child, but soon becomes convinced that the cultural and familial ties of the baby are as important as the bearing and birthing of him. Her eventual conviction that Grace and Dan are treating her with disregard and trying to keep what is rightfully hers leads both couples into a legal quagmire, a court hearing and a difficult legal decision that causes both grief and joy in equal measure.
The ethical and moral dimensions of this book are what make it an engaging read, as we so easily empathise with all of the characters and their struggles with themselves, as well as the unusual legalities – after all this is a new ground with the relative newness of the medical technology of IVF. In any case, legal precedents don’t hold all the answers for the human heart.
The Mothers is a well written story for our times, exploring issues that will only become more prevalent with advances in interventional medicine across many fields.