Mother of Pearl
Mother of Pearl tells the story of a surrogacy from the perspectives of three different women. Meg, a married 39-year-old jeweller from Melbourne, is desperate for a child. Years of IVF treatments have left her bereft, her grief like “a wild animal in a cage”. It’s 2008, the eighth year of south-eastern Australia’s worst drought, and even her once-lush garden is barren, its lawn “straw”, the “ferns like brown bones”.
Her older sister, Anna, is a single, childless freelance aid worker in South-East Asia. She has worked for years in various programs that empower women, and is something of a nomad with a tendency to pitch her tent on the moral high ground.
The third protagonist, Mod, is a single mother in a small Thai town, struggling to make a living from a food cart in a failing market. A friend tells Mod there’s good money in carrying other people’s babies, and offers to introduce her to a reputable agency in Bangkok: Team Baby.
Anna, back in Melbourne, is friends with a gay couple who’ve just had a baby via a Thai surrogate – it’s through them that Meg hatches the idea of doing the same. Anna, mindful of the potential for exploitation, has reservations about the whole business of wombs for rent. Meg’s doubts are more focused on her relationship with her future child. Because her eggs are no longer viable, the baby will be created from her husband’s sperm and a donor egg from a Thai woman, and Meg’s role in the pregnancy will be pretty much restricted to collecting the baby after it’s born. Will she be able to love the child, she wonders? And, she seethes, why is Anna, who’s gone rather judgemental on her, always there for strangers and so rarely there for her?
As for Mod, she’ll need to leave her young son behind with her family for the duration of the surrogate pregnancy. Fulfilling another woman’s desire for motherhood is good karma, but doing it for money detracts from the good deed, and makes it a shameful business.
The novel’s 72 short chapters bounce between the perspectives of the three women as they come together through Team Baby. At times, each character veers dangerously close to stereotype: Anna, that of the self-righteous, ostentatiously culturally sensitive white saviour; Meg, that of a privileged First World woman whose wants and needs always take priority; and Mod, that of the put-upon Asian woman with a heart of gold. Meg’s partner, Nate, seems the archetypal Supportive Husband, necessary to the plot in the way a Good Wife has often been in the hands of male authors. But author Angela Savage is too skilful a writer to deal in clichés. As the narrative of this, her fourth novel, develops, each of the women reveals herself to be more complex and capable than she first appears. Even Nate gets his off-script moment.
The novel’s three sections carry the titles “Preconception”, “Gestation” and “Afterbirth”. The first, a nod to the three women’s mindsets at the start of the story, also hints at one of the book’s major themes: coping with change. Anna has an ambivalent attitude to change, as symbolised in an imagined conversation with an old lover about the gentrification of Bangkok. She remarks, “It used to have so much more character,” knowing what he would reply: “It used to have more rats, too.” Mod, a devout Buddhist, seeks to embrace impermanence. She attends a lecture by a monk who observes that most people associate change with “loss and suffering” and permanence with security. Yet “impermanence is like some of the people we meet in life: difficult and disturbing at first, but on deeper acquaintance, far friendlier and less unnerving than we could have imagined”. Meanwhile, Meg, incapable of revising her expectations, sets the whole train of events in motion through her determination to change her childless state.
Each woman enters the surrogacy process with false hope. Meg fantasises about “locking eyes” with her surrogate and “finding a bond beyond language, almost sacred”. Anna is just as delusional in believing that her cultural awareness and ability to speak Thai will allow her to grow close to Mod in a way denied to monocultural Meg. Mod does not foresee how difficult, invasive and painful the whole process will be, both physically and psychologically.
When international surrogacy hits the news it’s usually as scandal. Anna, urgently aware of the abuse that can occur, was determined to find Meg a reputable agency. Team Baby appeared to fit the bill, but behind the scenes they’re not as squeaky clean as their image. Neither sister will ever get the full picture, and Meg, most likely, would not want to anyway. Savage, who writes with a tough mind and tender heart, tackles the moral and ethical issues around surrogacy with an unsentimental yet sympathetic eye: this is a novel, not a polemic.
Like Anna, Savage has worked in NGOs in Vientiane, Hanoi and Bangkok. Her knowledge of that world informs and gives texture to her narrative. She’s also alert to how much can be lost in translation, both linguistic and cultural – and how much of that loss can be purposeful. Not having let on to Team Baby that she speaks Thai, Anna hears how they manipulate and moderate conversations between the IPs (intended parents) and the Thai donors and surrogates. There’s a third language at work as well, that of acronyms such as IP, intended to overlay a veneer of scientific, managerial objectivity on an emotional and messy reality.
As she waits in Melbourne for the pregnancy to run its course, Meg agonises over how to tell people. Should she wear a pregnancy pillow and pretend? Will she be judged? Fortunately, if a little weirdly, her friends, mothers all, are unquestioningly supportive; when they fall into baby talk, she feels included at last. Personally, I found Meg unbearable, but kinder-hearted readers will be glad for her. And rest assured, Savage still has another twist or two in store for the tale.
Transit Lounge, 320pp, $29.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 10, 2019 as "Angela Savage, Mother of Pearl". Subscribe here.