It is a world many women have dreamed of, one where pregnancy is no longer solely the responsibility of the female, where sexism has been stamped out and where child rearing is divided equally between the parents. Welcome to the alternative reality of FullLife, a company which has transformed childbirth by creating a “pouch” in which the foetus grows – a pouch which can be carried around by either the male or female, meaning any remnants of the traditional mother and father roles have been eradicated. Complications at birth are almost unheard of and gay couples and women suffering infertility are able to conceive as easily as those in a heterosexual relationship.
The Growing Season, Highlands-dwelling Helen Sedgwick’s intriguing second novel after her acclaimed The Comet Seekers, looks at how such a scientific breakthrough, something which on the surface appears to have revolutionised the lives of women, impacts on society.
The plot begins at a time when the utopia created by FullLife – almost no babies are born the natural way and the few women who choose to do so are regarded as far outside the mainstream – is rocked by uncertainty. The third generation of pouch babies are starting to be born, most notably the offspring of the granddaughter of the first woman to give birth by pouch, Holly Bhattarachya. But questions have begun to emerge. Are the pouches really as safe as their creators have always claimed them to be? Have FullLife scientists been keeping information from the public?
The book raises some interesting questions about a future which may not be as improbable as it sounds, and Sedgwick nudges the reader towards considering what such a world would be like. A gently surprising scene depicting a male receptionist, working at his desk while absentmindedly stroking a pouch, reminds us that in today’s world, however much we like to think we are modern, forward-thinkers, we are not, and our gender roles are still clearly defined.
Eva, who would not have been born without the pouch, but who has spent her life opposing it, opting for an out-there natural birth for her own pregnancy, begins to investigate. She is unusual in her viewpoint – but her background is unusual. For the rest of the world, the pain, the fear and the risk of something going wrong during childbirth has been stamped out by science. Why would anyone want to go back? Her former partner, journalist Piotr, is also intrigued, having spent his professional career following the world of FullLife.
Some aspects of the novel are confusing, especially the transcriptions of audio recordings made by an initially unidentified character, which make far more sense on a re-read when it is clear who it is that is making them.
Otherwise, this is an intriguing, eye-opening and potentially worrying glimpse into an alternative societal path.
*The Growing Season, by Helen Sedgwick, Harvill Secker £12.99