Sunday, January 04, 2009

Special Delivery

Great Expectations: Twenty-four True Stories about Childbirth
Edited by Dede Crane and Lisa Moore
House of Anansi Press, 314 pages, $21.95

Reviewed by Ariel Gordon

In the preface to their co-conceived anthology of birth stories by Canadian writers, editors Dede Crane and Lisa Moore declare "birth is everybody's miracle."

While this sounds like sentimental hoo-ha, it is technically true.

(If you didn't know anything about how babies were born and someone told you that women have to squeeze the eight-pound darlings out of their vaginas, would you believe them?)

Crane and Moore's next editorial assertion, however, isn't as defensible.

Birth, they say, is "complex, dramatic, full of human strength and frailty, fear, and humour, as well as invaluable wisdom" and is "all the stuff of good stories."

The problem with this statement is that birth stories come into the world along with babies.

Which makes birth stories as common as, well, dirt.

As such, most people don't care about the infinite details of anyone else's birth story the same way that most people don't care about the infinite details of anyone else's baby.

Given that Victoria-based Crane and St. John's-based Moore are writers of some renown, however, it stands to reason that the birth stories they (and their fellow Canadian novelists, journalists, and non-fiction specialists) would share would be buoyed by their literary merit.

And while the contributors list for Great Expectations includes some of this country's better-known writers (not to mention six men), it suffers from the same plight of most anthologies: uneven material.

The mark of a successful anthology is that the good material far outweighs the bad or even indifferent.

Luckily, this anthology contains a number of surprising and interesting stories, enough to make it worth adding to your library.

Moore's, incidentally, is one of the best of the bunch, including as it does the following speech from her husband, given at a critical moment in the delivery of their first child:

"Lisa, this doctor says he doesn't like your personality. He has asked you to shut up. Apparently, you might die, and they are doing an emergency surgery. They can't waste a second. The thing is, this guy is about to cut you open with a knife, and so I think maybe we should try to stay on his good side."

Some of the best entries work this darkly funny vein. Globe and Mail foreign correspondent Stephanie Nolen's entry is a satisfyingly profane description of a thwarted natural birth.

"I thought I just flew 7,000 kilometres to give birth with a midwife," she writes, "so I didn't end up on my goddamn back with my knees in my ears."

Novelist Karen Connelly is fearless in her description of how being a sexual abuse survivor impacts her labour, while Lynn Coady is (surprise! surprise!) funny and sad in her story of teenage pregnancy and giving up her child for adoption.

Poet Esta Spalding is tenderly elegiac, describing the twins she carried and the single child that survived. Edeet Ravel's contribution features a manic humour that makes for a nice change from the tragic romances on offer in her politically charged novels.

Some of the less original offerings ("I fell in love with my child instantly!" "The pain and hardship of labour and birth were all worth it!") are hobbled not only by the everyone-has-a-unique-birth-story problem but also by one of craft.

That's because in terms of story, birth is pretty straightforward: You start out with a hugely pregnant woman and you end up with a slightly less swollen woman and a baby.

It takes a remarkable writer to be both completely and starkly honest while simultaneously making a story we already know the end of interesting.

The male contributors, such as Giller Prize-winner Joseph Boyden and Brick magazine editor Michael Redhill, have a further difficulty in that they have to endlessly note that their role in the birth they're recounting doesn't compare to that of their partners.

That said, Edmonton-based Curtis Gillespie and Governor General's Award-winner Peter Behrens, both novelists, write well and movingly of their partners' birthing experiences.

A final, minor quibble is that the links between several of the writers are a bit too obvious. Coady's story, for instance, is followed by Christy Ann Conlin's, which references Coady.

Crane's story of her fourth birth is followed by that of her husband, novelist Bill Gaston.

It is natural that the editors would have asked writer friends to contribute (and even that writers would be friends with other writers of about the same vintage), but for readers, it may be best not to know.

All of that said, while Great Expectations didn't fulfil all one's expectations, it is still a good and earnest addition to the growing store of Canadian writing on pregnancy and mothering.

(You're just the cutest little anthology of birth stories! Yes you are!)

Winnipeg writer Ariel Gordon published a chapbook of poems about her 2006 pregnancy with Palimpsest Press of Kingsville, Ont., this past fall.

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