Novels and great women

I was on a panel at a writers’ festival with US writer Alice McDermott late last year, and over the holidays I read her new novel Someone. Any description will pale in comparison with the effect the novel had on me. It changed the way I see the world, reminding me that women not only endure. They shine. Someone explores the life of Marie, growing up in Irish Catholic Brooklyn of the 1920s when the novel opens, later marrying. Marie’s first experience of childbirth is traumatic, as many births were in the post-war years. Marie’s doctor does a caesarean, without anaesthesia. Afterwards, Marie nearly dies of an infection. Following her trauma, near death and shockingly poor treatment, Marie experiences ordinary care at the hands of another doctor, who “was, I thought, giving my body back to me.” The first doctor tells her she shouldn’t have any more children. I won’t ruin the story but her response is powerful. It made me punch the air while reading.

Recent research shows that reading novels not only makes us kinder to our fellows. It alters our brains. And the effects continue after the novel is finished. Humanities and brain science researchers at Emory University did daily MRI scans of the brains of 20 undergrads who were all reading the same novel in the same timeframe. They found that reading narrative (not literature, mind, the novel was Pompeii, a thriller) changed the undergrad brains, with heightened connectivity in the left temporal cortex, involved in receptivity for language, which you might expect, but also in the central sulcus, the primary sensory motor region of the brain, suggesting that the readers had been transported “into the body of the protagonist.” This may be stating the bleeding obvious to novel readers, but it’s the first time science has grappled with the biological as opposed to the figurative experience of reading. The changes were still there five days after reading finished. So it’s possible that Someone not only left me breathless with love. It also changed my brain. Marie got in there and did some good work.

Frankly, even without brain science I’d know there’s nothing better than being altered by reading fiction. I think of Bread and Honey when I was twelve, which made me feel all right about myself, Jane Eyre when I was older, which gave me a model of a competent woman, and now Someone, which has given me a missing piece of a life puzzle about ordinary women and courage.

I wrote a book about maternity care in Australia five years ago because when I worked on a review with Dr Cherrell Hirst I was shocked by what was happening to women and their families. During the research phase, I met women like Marie who’d had horrific experiences. Doctors and midwives were not working together, some didn’t care and a few were even cruel. But what’s stayed with me from McDermott’s novel is the power of women to endure and even triumph, the power of someone. The women I interviewed for The Birth Wars had also survived and even thrived despite their experiences.

Debra Bath lost her baby Lillienne when she developed pre-eclampsia and carers failed her. The first time I met Debra, I was amazed at her ability to turn her experience around and not give in to anger and despair. “‘Anger and me don’t get along very well,” she told me simply. I knew even then that Debra was someone. She has more experience of grief than most of us, having also lost a second baby, Finn, after Lillienne. And yet, she is one of the most positive people I’ve met, creating a meaningful life for her family out of these hard, hard experiences. Debra writes at Ponderare, and I read everything she posts because it’s always so wise.

This was the gift of the novel Someone, the thing I didn’t know when I was writing The Birth Wars, that our life journeys might take us somewhere we didn’t ask to go, that the unthinkable might happen, it might happen to us. And yet, we can endure. We can shine. A tiny novel can give you all that. What a gift.


Based on the column published in The Courier-Mail Qweekend  on 1 February 2014. I write mainly about writing, education, birth, health and the thrill of parenting. You can Get in touch,  tick the box to receive emails, Like Writer Mary-Rose MacColl on Facebook or follow MaryRoseMacColl on Twitter. Have a great day!