Elizabeth Baines The Birth Machine (£8.99 published by Salt Publishing 2010, available at www.saltpublishing.com)
The Birth Machine is on its third outing since its initial publication in the 1980s. Salt’s publication is the original intended form. This novel differs greatly from The Women’s Press publication of 1983 and readers familiar with that text can get a real insight into how editorial changes can turn a novel on its head. Baines here shows that this is not a novel that is written for and read only by women. It is a novel satirises the medical system and in turn, pokes humour at objective control. It smashes the objectivity supposedly purported in life, in friendships, working relationships and shows that often it is the viewpoint of the individual and their personality (and in the case of the male characters the way they look and they way they are perceived to look by the women around them) that overrides logic. Baines draws a line between the female voices in the novel, often seen as subjective and in the case of the protagonist, Zelda, a voice that over reacts and then men that are in Zelda’s life from her husband, her doctor and her consultant, all cold, all objective, and all of them distant not through professionalism but their own fears. Therefore, Baines weaves in the story of Zelda around this objective world of cool men. Zelda is ostracized in her home; she is no more than an ornament, faded into the background of her husband’s blossoming career. Zelda is ignored during her birth by the male doctor and then by the nurses, smitten by the good looking doctor and believing everything he says even when he is clearly wrong. Baines shows the force of personality, the subjective over the objective and this creates a novel with subtle satire.
In Baines prose it is often the language of the body that undermines the power of the objective. She captures how the voice says one thing whilst the body belies it. This runs throughout the novel and this is one of the reasons that Zelda, prone in her bed, waiting for her birth to start, her body naked to the world and the medical profession withdraws into her past, into fantasy and into fear. There is a real sense in Baines prose that Zelda has been kept childlike and dependent by the men in her life. I can see what Baines is trying to do here, and it reveals Baines ability to weave not just a simple story of pregnancy but wider complex themes of dependency, strength and belief. In the novel Zelda is lost as a child, weakened by the girls around her and then the coming of the male character, boy. Through him a world of mystery, fear and fantasy is released upon the girls den and the world outside. Zelda subsequently isolated as an adult, as a child her voice gave way to others and as an adult this has continued.
In a lesser writer’s hands this would end up a diatribe against men but this is not what the novel is about. This is just one layer of the story. Baines is showing that there is a real battle going on between an objective structure that we all aspire to, the desire to be part of a working society, a desire to fit in, tow the line and be rational and then the darker side of all our personalities, the subjective drive, the irrational anger, the consuming fear, guilt and apathy when we lose control not just of a situation but of ourselves. This is a story that anyone can relate to and this is the strength of The Birth Machine, and why it is on its third publication. This is novel that should be read and reread.