Sunday Book: Dead Babies and Seaside Towns by Alice Jolly

This book arrived on my doorstep (literally – it was too big to go through the letterbox) months ago, at a time when I was overwhelmed with work.  Then the floods wrecked the house and interrupted my life and it is only recently that I have finally opened the covers to read Alice Jolly’s memoir, Dead Babies and Seaside Towns. Since then the book has begun to win awards, including most recently the prestigious PEN Ackerley Prize, beating AA Gill and Adam Mars Jones to the money.

This is a book I’ve been close to.  Alice and I both tutored for the Open University’s creative writing degree course and became friends.  There was other shared experience; I have two stillborn grandchildren and, observing the pain and darkness my children went through with their beautiful dead babies, gave me some tiny morsel of understanding of the rage and grief that Alice was experiencing as she longed for the child she could not have.  No one, who has not experienced it (and even some women claim not to have done so), can imagine the power of the biological urge to have a child, the consuming, savage desire to hold a baby in your arms, feel its soft skin against your own, smell the arresting odour of the newborn.  The pain of loss is crippling, mentally and physically.  It destroys relationships with partners, siblings, relatives and friends.  Alice quotes the poet W.S. Merwin:

‘Your absence has gone through me
like thread through a needle.
Everything I do is stiched with its color.’ 

Alice Jolly chronicles the stillbirth of her daughter, subsequent recurrent miscarriages, failed IVFs, the attempts to deal with the mess that is the adoption process in the UK, with great beauty and insight.  I imagined it might be too tragic to read, but it is written with such compassion, and sometimes humour, that it is compulsive.  Yes, sometimes I cried, but often I smiled.  The overwhelming message of the book is Hope, both the abstract emotion and the small, blonde girl whose name it is.  Alice and her husband eventually went to America where surrogacy is both legal and regulated.  Hope’s birth certificate has three names on it; that of the woman who carried her, the woman who donated the egg and Alice herself.  The process was not easily entered into and there was a great deal of legal (and personal) searching by both Alice and her husband before Hope became their daughter.  It probably helped that Alice’s husband, Stephen, is an international lawyer because they were breaking new ground when they brought Hope back to England.  Not until Hope was several months old, and a High Court judge signed off the papers, could Alice and Stephen really be sure that she was legally and absolutely theirs.

Alice is interesting on the subject of memoir; “Although I’m a writer by profession, I have always felt sure that I would never write a memoir.  I do not trust them, never have.  Me-me-me, moi-moi-moi.”  Alice has already written two very accomplished novels published by Simon and Schuster, but distrusts the techniques of fiction in the service of truth.  “When you write a novel you work with chains of cause and effect, moments of resolution where meaning might briefly and brilliantly dazzle through.  Will it be the same if I write a memoir?”   But she has written more than a memoir.  It is a blazing, courageous analysis of motherhood and (almost as an aside) daughterhood. Alice spares herself nothing.  Another of her quotes is from Nietzsche: ‘We have art in order not to die of the truth’.

It is obvious why this book won the PEN Ackerley award – there is nothing else like it. Which was one of the reasons why her agent (who was also mine) and mainstream publishing in general were too nervous to take it on.  Dead Babies and Seaside Towns was crowd-funded through Unbound, which had Paul Kingsnorth's prize-winning, Man Booker listed The Wake last year.  It seems clear that Big Publishing had better get its act together when it comes to new directions in contemporary literature or it will find when it eventually gets to the harbour that the tide has gone out and the boat has long gone.

Alice Jolly  is crowd-funding her 3rd novel 'Between the Regions of Kindness' which you subscribe to via Unbound by clicking here.   I've read the manuscript and, believe me, it's brilliant!   


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