Saturday, 20 January 2007

Sylvia Brownrigg: The Delivery Room (2006)

Published: Picador, 2006

Sylvia Brownrigg's third novel is her darkest so far. Its main themes are given by three different symbolic or real life associations prompted by the title: birth, psychiatric therapy, and death. The main character is a Serbian psychotherapist named Mira, who faces additional worries apart from those connected to her pations (many of whom are women with problems connected, either literally or figuratively, to childbirth). Though living and working in London for decades with her English husband, she worries about her family in the midst of fighting in former Yugoslavia (The Delivery Room being set about a decade ago), about her relationship with her stepson and his wife, and about the way that "Serbian" is turning into a dirty word, as a name associated with the atrocities of ethnic cleansing. The word "delivery" is also used by NATO to describe the airstrikes on Kosovo which occur midway through the novel.

The first part sets the scene and introduces the characters. (The patients seemed to me slightly too connected to each other and to Mira's family for versimilitude, but this flaw was not too off-putting.) but with the second part, bad news turns the novel onto its bleaker path. Mira's husband is diagnised with cancer, which becomes the centre of the rest of the novel as it dominates her emotional life. This is not a novel to read if you find such topics distressing to read about. I'm not sure that the introduction of something so serious works; it possibly overbalances a novel that has already tried to bring in so many themes under the general heading of delivery. It would be just as overpowering and central in real life, it is true, but in a novel it comes over as heavy handed and less realistic, paradoxically. It lacks the lighter touch which helped The Metaphysical Touch, which deals with the equally downbeat issue of suicide, to be more successful. Reading The Delivery Room, I was surprised when a comparison occurred to me that I hadn't thought of before: that Sylvia Brownrigg's style is similar to that of Carol Shields, another writer whose work I generally enjoy. Shields is generally less dark and more domestic, but the issues Mira has with her stepson and vice versa could well appear in one of Shields' novels. This thought may well be due to re-reading The Republic of Love just before starting on The Delivery Room, but I think it is valid. Both of them have gentle styles, and their novels are not only character based, but they also share a knack of bringing characters to life quickly. Brownigg is perhaps not yet as good - and this novel seems to me to be something of a retrograde step - but she could easily rival the Canadian author with a little more experience.

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