Magazine article The Spectator

Last Year Is Best

Magazine article The Spectator

Last Year Is Best

Article excerpt


by Joanna Kavenna

Faber, £12.99, pp. 308,

ISBN 9780571245178

The Birth of Love, Joanna Kavenna's first novel since her prize-winning Inglorious, is clever, ambitious and not wholly successful. It is a tribute to her skill that she handles her four narrative strands without lapsing into confusion;

the reader is deftly directed on a journey through time and place. The danger is that emotional resonance is sacrificed to an over schematic insistence on concept.

Her first story is based on historical fact.

In 1865, Ignaz Semmelweis is confined to a Viennese lunatic asylum where he is barbarously treated. Semmelweis, a doctor, discovered that the many deaths in hospitals from puerperal fever were caused by doctors with unwashed hands coming straight from post-mortems to examine women in labour.

After years of bitter struggle to have his theory accepted, he has fallen into a delusive state, overwhelmed by dreams of 'torrents of blood', the blood of the mothers and babies he could not save.

Unfortunately, Kavenna tells this potentially fascinating story in stilted faux-19th-century prose - 'In my years of studying the mad, or this category of humans we refer to thus . . .'

mixed with hackneyed phrases - 'A room stinking of human fear'; 'They are watching me and trying to destroy me' - that muffle the horror of Semmelweis' predicament.

His story is paralleled by a dystopian fable set in 2153, within an over-warmed Arctic circle. Overpopulation and destruction of habitat threaten the survival of the species.

The 'Protectors' have excised love from the reproductive process. Women no longer bear children; their eggs are 'harvested' and their wombs are 'closed'. Desire - male desire, at least - is catered for in government-run 'Sexual Release Centres'. One woman somehow manages to become pregnant and carry her baby to term. …

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