‘I felt as if / I was nothing, no one, I was everything to her, I was hers,’ writes Sharon Olds in ‘First Birth’. For Chitra Ramaswamy this self-immolation begins much earlier in pregnancy. She becomes breathless as her organs make room for the foetus, and later suspects the two heartbeats inside her are secretly conversing. Expecting: The Inner Life of Pregnancy is the award-winning journalist’s first book, charting the months until the birth of her child.
Nine chapters mirror the author’s gestation. Each one has a recurring motif, so that everyday events swell with meaning. ‘December’ is watery: it takes as an epigraph a stanza from Muriel Rukeyser’s ‘Islands’ and we’re told how the foetus’s hands are like paddles, ‘the tiniest of oars’, and its skin transparent, ‘an octopus revealing her ink’. She talks of morning sickness that ‘ebbed and flowed’ and the ‘unchartered waters’ that lie ahead. The symmetry between subject matter and form is deeply satisfying; the chapters feel as sculpted as essays. Later she remarks of a chance encounter that ‘a neat narrative circle had brought me here’. And perhaps her love of such things has shaped the book.
Expecting is a work of opposites. Paintings in a studio are ‘abstract and realist’. Glasgow is a city of ‘old ships, new shops’. Contrast defines her own situation too, balanced as she is between the worlds of pre and post parturition. During her first trimester, she takes a trip to a remote Maldivian island ‘where buildings, hospitals, car parks and scans seemed unimaginable’. The movement in her womb is felt but unseen. And then there is the complexity of the foetus and the easy speed with which it grows:
The fingers were now beginning to separate into digits, as were the toes. Nails were already present. The skin remained transparent but now it was covered in the softest, finest layer of down, graduating from octopus to seal… It was a shock. I was only a third of a way through the journey but to some extent the deed was done.
Most significant, in this book of new life, are passages about her mother’s breast cancer and her father-in-law’s death, a poignancy intensified with quotations from Susan Sontag’s Illness as Metaphor.
Although the book is a mix of history, biology, architecture and etymology, nature writing abounds. There are memories of Rannoch Moor, quotes from Nan Shepherd and Robert Macfarlane, and a holiday to Orkney where she watches ‘curlews scything the windblown grass’. In some ways it is fitting that a book about birth should consider too the natural world, the one being so much a part of the other. Ramaswamy touches on anthropology, and there is much talk of her own boisterous physiology. But at times the synergy feels forced. At the twenty-week scan her sonographer reveals that a C-section may be likely:
‘You have a low-lying placenta’ she said. Low-lying. The word carried me to the Orkneys, those low-lying islands hunkering down in the North Sea that the poet George Mackay Brown described as ‘sleeping whales … beside an ocean of time’.
This would work as a retrospective comparison; it’s her desire to write of-the-moment-in-the-moment, a common stylistic feature of wild writing, which makes the connection seem contrived. Sometimes it feels like Ramaswamy is concerned more with genre-blending than the untangling of human experience. At moments like this, the work becomes somehow less.
Other analogies are close to sublime. She remembers a walk near Cape Wrath, and how unclear the peatlands track had been: looking back ‘was as unknown as what lay ahead, as though our footsteps had been sucked back into the moor’, and she compares this to her pregnancy’s progress, and her inability to envisage motherhood. Elsewhere she likens the temporary synaesthesia of mind and body, the dizzying perspective of pregnancy, to the landscape of Assynt, a place where she felt she could ‘reach out and touch the pink Torridon sandstone of hills that were miles away’.
The most affecting parts are those where Ramaswamy describes an almost otherworldly connection with the unborn baby. Her conviction that it can sense the world beyond her womb is so strong that while paddling in the sound of Iona she feels guilty about the cold water that slaps her belly. It is a journey taken very much in tandem, and as she charts the development of the foetus, she records too the changes to her own body. Veins appear on her breasts and she has pain in her jaw. Some changes have a strange kind of beauty, as with the linea negra that ‘started to show faintly, as if beneath tracing paper, decorated with the occasional baby hair’. Some have the weight of medical fact. Her placenta is a ‘giant wombsponge’ that half a litre of blood passes through every minute.
But there is intimacy too. She describes looking at a photograph of herself and her donor (the baby having been conceived with a syringe from ‘a hissing nitrogen tank’) and seeing it always through her unborn child’s eyes. She wonders if her inability to call the bump ‘my baby’ is because it was conceived with ‘a stranger, not a lover’. And it is at these moments, so distinct from physical transformation, that the vulnerability of her pregnant self is most understood.
The beating heart of the book is Ramaswamy’s vibrant imagery. She suspects the pain in her jaw is due to her ‘chewing on secrets in the night’, and she says that whenever she thinks of her own birth, she tastes aniseed and should not be surprised at these times to find her tongue ‘inked blue-black’. When her waters break on her living room rug, she is certain it ‘sloshed all the way to the walls, seeped into the cracks between the uneven floorboards’. In this way, she plays with the narrative, taking us beyond it, into the darkness that can only be imagined. Something akin to life in utero.
Laura Morgan is a published short story author and has a place-writing blog where she posts creative non-fiction, https://aremoteview.wordpress.com/. Her work is published in The Moth, Causeway/Cabhsair, Northwords Now, Words from an Island, Hysteria 5, and The Bottle Imp. She is currently a recipient of the Scottish Book Trust New Writer Award and is using it to complete her first short story collection, Winter Ground.