LET HER GO
Author: Dawn Barker
Hachette RRP $29.99
Review: Monique Mulligan
The release of Dawn Barker’s second novel, Let Her Go, which explores surrogacy within a family, was followed by a controversial real-life case involving a Thai surrogate, an Australian couple and a baby allegedly unwanted because it had Down Syndrome and associated complications. The case sparked national interest and vigorous debate (as well as huge fallout) – everyone, it seemed, had an opinion and feelings about the couple’s alleged actions and the wider issue of surrogacy. For those looking for a less sensational read about the issue, Barker’s thoughtful novel explores surrogacy and its impacts on a quieter scale, delving into the hearts of the mothers (biological and adopted) and a young girl wanted by two families.
Let Her Go calls on readers to examine their hearts and minds about a difficult issue. Nadia, a mother-of-three, sees her step-sister’s desperation to have a child and offers to act as a surrogate. She carries the baby, created through her own eggs and Zoe’s husband’s sperm, but when it comes to handing the baby over, it’s much harder than she ever anticipated. Years later, the baby (Louise) is a troubled teenager, rejecting her parents’ concern for her well-being and engaging in risky behaviours. Things come to a head when she overhears her parents discussing her past and their choices; in one fell swoop the image she has constructed up about her life and family is shattered. What happened after she was born? Who are her parents? Readers are none the wiser for much of the book and are drawn into a story that’s as much mystery as it is a a classic “what would you do” scenario.
Here’s a taste:
Zoe let her go on a bit longer about how busy she was. There had been a time when she had loved to listen to Nadia talk about everything to do with being a mother, a time when she’d dreamed of experiencing it too. But now, she didn’t want to hear about how exhausted Nadia was. God, what Zoe wouldn’t give to experience that, to be part of that world. But what could she say?
As Zoe reached him, he put one arm around her, and the other around Nadia, still holding Harry. Rosemary stood just to the side of them, with one hand on the head of each of Nadia’s little girls. What a perfect picture, Zoe thought, as a flash went off in her eyes. But of course it wasn’t perfect. Zoe saw, as if it was a solid mass, the vast, gaping space where her own children should be. Her arms ached and her neck muscles strained with the weight of emptiness. If she saw the photo that had just been taken, she was sure there would be a ghostly white outline in the shape of a child below her knees, like an old Victorian daguerreotype, or perhaps three tiny dark shadows over her heart. The babies she’d lost. Lost. As if she’d misplaced them, been careless. If she could have clutched onto them any more tightly, held them inside until they were strong enough to survive, she would have given up anything.
In any situation like this, there’s going to be fallout of some sort. How detached can the woman acting as a surrogate really be? What happens if she develops feelings for the unborn child? If she changes her mind, what then? Let Her Go is complicated by two other factors – the first that the surrogate has a biological connection to the baby; the second, is the relationship between the biological and adoptive mothers, which becomes increasingly strained after the initial feelings of generosity, self-sacrifice, compassion and gratefulness wear off. Barker taps into these additional issues with sensitivity and astute observation, no doubt a reflection of her work as a psychiatrist. Her ability to reach into the minds of her characters is admirable, with the result a novel that tears down preconceived ideas and forces readers to think from all sides.
Let Her Go is a thoughtful slow burner of a book that will push your buttons over and over, whether you’re a parent, parent-to-be, or like Zoe, fighting the odds to have a child. It reached in, grabbed hold of my emotions, logic and values and twisted them up, leaving me wondering “what would I do?” days later. It doesn’t have the gut-punch effect of Barker’s first novel, Fractured, but Let Her Go‘s quiet belief in its message means readers will absorb the story and its implications like a sponge. Highly recommended.
Available from good bookstores and Hachette Australia. My copy was courtesy of Hachette Australia.
Bookish treat: Couldn’t eat, too busy reading.