Author, Book review, dystopian, Fiction, Focus on WA writers, Harper Collins Australia, Publisher, Reading Projects, Sara Foster, Setting, UK

‘The Hush’ by Sara Foster

Fiction – paperback; Harper Collins; 356 pages; 2021.

Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale meets Joanna Ramos’ The Farm in this brilliantly compelling novel by Australian-based English-born writer Sara Foster.

The Hush is set in the UK in the near future, about a decade after “the pandemic” (presumably Covid-19) began. Now there’s a new health crisis wreaking havoc, one that’s resulting in an epidemic of seemingly healthy babies dying at birth.

Within a few nightmarish months, almost every hospital across the country had experienced such an event. At first it was one in ten births, then one in eight. Now the ratio is creeping closer to one in five. Caesarians don’t help. It doesn’t matter how rapidly a neonate is plucked from the womb — if it’s an Intrapartum X baby it will go limp the moment it’s touched. The babies demonstrate no sign of pain, and no will to stay in the world. They are pristine human specimens.

They just won’t breathe.

The Government, hellbent on trying to figure out what’s going on, introduce sweeping new powers to monitor women’s well-being, including the compulsory wearing of waterproof watches that track ID, credit card payments and health data. This is under the guise of keeping women safe, but it’s really a way to keep tabs on their reproductive systems. Under the law, the simple purchase of a pregnancy test now requires the presentation of ID, and the test must be taken onsite, the “results recorded and the health authorities notified”.

Into this maelstrom of surveillance and paranoia and the wearing down of women’s reproductive rights, pregnant teenagers begin to vanish without trace. A young activist, dubbed PreacherGirl, draws the population’s attention to their plight but her videos and website are taken down by the Government — and girls continue to disappear.

A thrilling dystopian tale

An exciting mix of dystopia and thriller, The Hush is framed around a tenderly depicted relationship between a mother and daughter who are drawn into an ever-deepening conspiracy reminiscent of Ireland’s Magdalene laundries. 

The story, fast-paced and full of urgency, alternates between both characters’ viewpoints. Emma, who is an overworked stressed-out midwife, has witnessed hundreds of stillbirths and knows what is at stake, while Lainey fears for a  pregnant school friend who is one of the disappeared.

A third character, Emma’s own estranged mother, comes into the story a little later on to help fight the good fight. She’s a renowned feminist who lives in Australia (sounds like someone familiar) and just so happens to be in the UK on a book tour at just the right moment!

There’s a wider cast of supporting female characters that showcase how women can achieve — and overcome — anything if they band together. (Not as cheesy as it sounds!)

But what gives the book its real edge and power is the believability of the setting. Foster depicts a world teetering on the brink of chaos and fear, where climate threats, anxiety, populism, terrorism and media hysteria combine to create something that feels as if it is lifted from today’s news headlines.

The Hush has been optioned for development as a television series.

I read this book for Bill’s Australian Women Writers Gen 5 Week, which was held on 15-22 January, but typically, having recently started a new job, I am waaaaaay behind in my reviewing obligations. Better late than never, I guess!

And because the author resides in Perth (she moved here in 2004 and has recently completed her PhD at Curtin University), the book also qualifies for my #FocusOnWesternAustralianWriters. You can find out more about this reading project here and see what books I’ve reviewed from this part of the world on my Focus on Western Australian Writers page

Author, Bloomsbury, Book review, Fiction, historical fiction, Kate Manning, literary fiction, New York, Publisher, Setting

‘My Notorious Life by Madame X’ by Kate Manning


Fiction – hardcover; Bloomsbury; 448 pages; 2013. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

It’s funny how movies often come in pairs — think Braveheart and Rob Roy, about Scottish historical heroes; Capote and Infamous, both biopics about Truman Capote; Flight 93 and United 93, about the same plane hijacked on 9/11.

The same happens with books, too. Gabriel Weston’s Dirty Work and Kate Manning’s My Notorious Life by Madame X both deal with abortion, albeit 150 years apart, and were published on the same day earlier this month. But despite the similarity in subject matter, they are very different novels in terms of plotting, prose style, tone and narrative voice.

I read both back-to-back and found they complemented each other rather nicely, but it was Kate Manning’s novel that made more of an impression on me.

Grand, sweeping drama

My Notorious Life by Madame X  is a grand sweeping drama set in Manhattan. Written in the first person,it charts the extraordinary life of Axie (Annie) Muldoon, who is born to impoverished Irish immigrants in the mid-19th century, forced to beg for pennies on the street, who rises to become one of the richest — and most scandalous — women in Manhattan.

Together with her younger sister, Dutch, and her baby brother, Joe, she is sent to Illinois as part of an orphan rehoming programme and the promise of a better life. But the family is split up when Dutch and Joe are sent to different homes. No-one, however, wants the difficult and headstrong Axie, so she returns to Manhattan heartbroken but determined to find her siblings and reunite the family whatever it takes.

Sadly, more heart ache follows when her mother dies in childbirth, a tragedy that is to have a long-lasting impact on Axie’s life — for not only is she is taken in by the kindly doctor, who treats her mother, she eventually becomes apprenticed to his wife, Mrs Evans, who is a midwife, and learns the ins and outs of the “trade”.

Over time, Axie rises to become the infamous Madame X — a midwife, female physician and distributor of “obscene” material — who the authorities want to shut down and put in jail. But with the help of her clever and supportive husband, she continues to provide a much-needed service for the women of New York, even if she has to go underground to do it.

An engaging voice

One of the things I particularly loved about this book is Axie’s voice — bawdy, colourful, forthright and fiesty — which is written in the vernacular of an uneducated woman who drops her Gs and gets her grammar all in a muddle. (On more than one occasion her voice reminded me of Bessy Buckley in Jane Harris’s The Observations and Mary in Nell Leyshon’s The Colour of Milk, two of my favourite characters from recent fiction.)

But it’s the story that is contained within — which is based on the life and death of Ann Trow Lohman (1811-1879), who practised midwifery and carried out abortions in Manhattan for about 40 years — that makes this novel such a fascinating, occasionally jaw-dropping and often anger-inducing read. Indeed, for much of this novel I could feel myself becoming outraged by the way in which men controlled every facet of a woman’s life and did not allow her to make decisions about her own body. Instead of looking at their own behaviour — getting women, usually their mistresses, pregnant — they chose to condemn not only those women but Madame X who wanted only to help those of her sex who had got into difficulty.

While this novel doesn’t champion abortion, it doesn’t condemn it either — what it does is show how this procedure helped hundreds of naive, often uneducated and sexually inexperienced women, from a life of destitution on the streets. And it also shows how rich and powerful men did what they could to stamp it out by making it a punishable offense that carried a jail term of up to three years. The reader is left to make up their own mind as to how they feel about this, although I came away feeling nothing but heartache for those women forced to make such a decision.

But for a book dealing with such heavy and controversial themes, I have to say that My Notorious Life by Madame X is a rollicking good read and perhaps my favourite of the year so far. It’s not only sensitively written and hugely intelligent, it’s peopled with engaging characters, has a wonderful plot and a distinctive voice that is difficult to shake off. If only all contemporary fiction was so daring — and memorable.

Author, Book review, Fiction, Gabriel Weston, Jonathan Cape, literary fiction, London, Publisher, Setting

‘Dirty Work’ by Gabriel Weston


Fiction – hardcover; Jonathan Cape; 192 pages; 2013. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Gabriel Weston is a practising surgeon. Many of you may be familiar with her first book, Direct Red, which explored what it is like to be a surgeon, and went on to win the PEN/Ackerley Prize for autobiography in 2010. She sticks with the medical theme in her first novel, Dirty Work, which is a dark, oppressive tale about a doctor who makes a terrible mistake and then must face the consequences.

The kind of surgery no one talks about

From the opening line — “I have never seen so much blood” — this novel transports you directly into the fascinating world of surgery, where every decision (and incision) can make the difference between life and death.

But this is not the kind of surgery we normally talk about, for Nancy, the narrator of this story, is an “abortion provider” — she never calls herself an “abortionist” — and her career is not something she can freely mention in company without being shunned or condemned. Even fellow surgeons look down on her line of surgery, which is viewed as “dirty work”.

When she makes an error during a procedure, her world is turned upside down. She is investigated by a tribunal appointed by the General Medical Council to explain herself. If she is found to be negligent she will be struck off the register and unable to practise as a doctor again.

A novel in four parts

The book is structured around the four sessions of the tribunal (one a week for a month) — what happened in theatre; a psychiatric assessment; her recent performance as a doctor; and the verdict — but the narrative does not follow the cut and dried Q&A to which she is subjected. Instead, it ebbs and flows around Nancy’s memories — her childhood split between the USA and England, how she got into medicine, why she began providing abortions, the support she receives from her sister — which occur to her before, during and after each session.

This is a successful technique, because not only do you come to know Nancy very well and empathise with her predicament (it’s clear she is an excellent surgeon), you keep turning the pages because you want to know the verdict, which is delivered in the final pages of this short novel.

Compelling and claustrophobic read

I read this book on a four-hour plane journey and I have to say I was hooked from the start. It’s not a light or fun read though, because it covers such dark territory and there’s an oppressive atmosphere which resonates off the page.

While Dirty Work is told in a cold, detached manner, the author manages to make it incredibly moving in places. It’s an extraordinarily powerful novel for those prepared to read about a topic told in such a frank, forthright and often unnerving way.

But it’s real strength is the way in which it explores lots of issues and medical ethics and is able to show that nothing is black and white. This is not a book that examines the arguments for and against abortion; instead it looks at the mindset of those carrying them out. For instance, what makes a doctor want to become an abortionist? How do you rationalising saving life with terminating the unborn? And what kind of psychological impact, if any, does this kind of surgery have on those providing it?

For another take on this novel, please visit Jackie’s review at Farm Lane Books.