Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Unreliable facts | Maternity Home

I've spent the past few days trying to muddle through my thoughts on the Israeli novel Maternity Home (בית היולדות). It's a weird book, made weirder by its odd juxtaposition of fact, psychological studies, and completely false manipulations. It's got the strangest pacing of any book I've read in a long time, and though it takes almost 300 pages (out of... 300 pages) to get to the dramatic revelations that are easily predicted early in the book (specifics aside), a subtle tense vibe kept me mostly in suspense until the end of the book.

It's this odd balance of reality and complete non-reality that makes me suspect that Maternity Home is not a good book. I couldn't shake off the feeling that author Daria Maoz (who has a PhD in sociology and anthropology) was telling the truth at all times, despite the fact that I knew that a lot of the "facts" were simply manipulative brain-washing.

There is also a matter of marketing and genre definition. It's hard to explain without spoiling the end (which I would rather not do, despite the fact that I highly doubt this book will ever be translated into English...), but suffice to say that there's a rather inevitable twist at the novel's end. This twist does more than simply cast doubt on many of the so-called facts listed throughout the book, it calls into question the entire premise and genre of it. Maternity Home, in the space of a few out-of-place pages, transforms into a novel of a very different sort. I'm not surprised it hasn't been a particularly good seller.

But I cannot deny that I was extremely invested in Maternity Home. For all its flaws (namely the blurring of the fact-fiction line and the glibly told lies), it's an interesting book revolving around a fascinating subject: motherhood. Even through the veil of unreliability and mystery, the novel's focus on three women who have just gone through the "traumatic experience of giving birth" (as the doctors in the titular maternity home so often refer to it) is wonderfully informative. The carefully constructed manipulations, while creepy and disturbing enough, grow as the novel progresses. It's a gradual flip as the veil is pulled back slowly slowly, until it is finally whipped off within the final pages.

Overall I did gain much from reading Maternity Home. It's a curious genre-bending book that focuses on a subject that most fiction completely shies away from, offering a surprisingly blunt view of new motherhood. Even if I were to ignore the strangeness of the book, its setting, its premise, and its twist, it would remain interesting. Unfortunately, its own unreliability swings back: I may be better for having read Maternity Home, but I do not think it's the sort of book I'll be able to easily recommend. If at all.

3 comments:

  1. It isn't by any chance the adult equivalent of the child's 'and then I woke up and it was all a dream', is it. In other words, is it the sort of ending you get when the writer realises that the book has run away from them and they don't know how to bring it to a satisfactory conclusion?

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    1. Not at all, it's a twist of a very different sort. It's just all got a very strange feeling to it, as though the meshing of fact and fiction suddenly realized that there were going to be side-effects of that type of union...

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  2. It sounds sort of fascinating and I hope Dalkey Archive or one of those small presses that specialize in edgy translations might get this one to the English speaking world.

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