At first glance I would understand if some of you saw the letters IVF and moved swiftly on. There is perhaps a tendency to dismiss a book on the subject as irrelevant if it hasn't touched your life in anyway. All I can say is that Avalanche, published this week, is ultimately about a great deal more than one woman's overwhelming desire for a baby and for that reason alone I hope some of you might feel it is worth reading on.I have had to rummage deep into the basement to find my thoughts on a previous book by Australian writer Julia Leigh. It was Disquiet and I was indeed very disquieted but very impressed by it. Likewise I have been both surprised and moved by Avalanche.
Julia Leigh's quest for a child begins in earnest at the age of thirty-eight when she starts a programme of IVF and that quest won't end for another seven years as the urge for a child drives her onward in an increasingly desperate journey that will not end in success. I didn't want to use the word failure. When I worked as an online health visitor for netmums.com it was a word we avoided on the IVF forum boards and yet Julia Leigh doesn't flinch from it...
'What I try to hold onto now that the treatment has failed is a commitment to love widely and intensely...to unshackle my love from the great love I wanted to give my own child.''
Under the crushing weight of hope and expectation Julia Leigh's marriage will collapse amidst recriminations and far-reaching consequences as her quest continues as a single parent and what follows is an intimate and searingly honest account and a brilliant insight into the ways of determination bordering on self-delusion. I'm guessing we can all think of life moments when we've seen or heard only the bits, the extracts of the whole that we have wanted to. Selective reasoning, that which denies the full facts, often when they are staring us in the face, and reading this book, witnessing someone else doing it and paying huge amounts of money for the privilege...well all I could think was 'Stop, please stop...'
The cost was eye-watering as Julia Leigh, consumed by the yearning that obscures all else, pursued routes of desperation with gritty determination. For those who have been through this and for whom IVF was not successful there may well be an affinity and some congruence with this book; for those who may have successfully negotiated IVF, likewise. For those who conceived naturally...well it's a powerful read nevertheless about what might have been taken for granted as normal, a right, an expectation.
I have recently been re-visiting Arthur Frank's excellent book The Wounded Storyteller. I heard him speak at medical humanities conference many years ago and was deeply impressed by his views on the narrative of illness. A wounded storyteller is defined by him as 'anyone who has suffered and lived to tell the tale' and to a great extent his views on listening to people's stories changed my practice dramatically. I had bought the book and stupidly sold it when I was purging my shelves of that clinical life, but I have rediscovered it (£2 on Kindle) and renewed my acquaintance with Arthur Frank's theories on the varying stages used by wounded storytellers about their lives. He argues that it is those stages of restitution, chaos and quest that create the structures that are used by both storytellers and listeners alike to interpret their narratives.
It seems like a framework that could have been invented for Avalanche.
Whilst Julia Leigh's story is not about illness as such (though it is fair to assume she must have felt pretty rough a lot of the time) there is most certainly chaos, defined by Arthur Frank as a state...
'in which many people feel trapped, when each misfortune seems to trigger some other collapse...'
As Arthur Frank elaborates...
'Those living in chaos are least able to tell a story, because they lack any sense of a viable future...'
Julia Leigh's only viable future for herself seems to be predicated on child-bearing and motherhood alone and she clearly conveys this for much of the book. The quest narrative slowly emerges as that 'possibility, especially for a more intimate connection with others,' when the realisation dawns that here is an invaluable experience from which others may benefit...and I can see this book resonating with many many women and their partners.
The Wounded Storyteller highlights the problem of the 'diminished self' and there is little doubt that throughout her gruelling years of treatment Julia Leigh feels increasingly diminished by her experiences (she suggests 'shopworn' ) but by breaking her silence has surely achieved a degree of restitution and resolution.
Arthur Franks quotes another survivor, Audre Lourde...
'My silence has not protected me, your silence will not protect you.'
And thereby resided the power of Avalanche for me as I read.
I sat and watched a series of small avalanches on the slopes of Mount Cook when I was in New Zealand...cue gratuitous picture of the very lovely Mount Cook...
Silent but devastating when they first shift on a mountainside, the noise and the movement of an avalanche somehow disengaged from each other, slightly out of sequence to my eyes and ears as I watched Mount Cook from a distance, but gathering momentum as the snow fall travelled.
It is a brilliant title for a book like this.
Avalanches have the power not only to do damage as they bury and submerge but also perhaps to reveal previously unseen layers and Julia Leigh has certainly dug deep to become the architect of her own rescue in telling her story so vividly and so movingly. When the sounds of her life finally caught up with the action the result is a telling and compelling read.
Avalanche is a book that has really made me think and reflect and I wanted to add the author's note in its entirety to this post because, having read it once I had finished the book, it offered a fascinating perspective...
'A writer contemplating whether or not to begin a new work asks herself - is this truly a story worth telling? Avalanche felt necessary. I've tried to tell an intensely personal story about a common experience that has largely remained unspoken. I wanted to offer a 'shared aloneness' to anyone who has desperately longed for a child. I hope I've brought into the light the way the IVF industry really works - and I could only do that in non-fiction. I wanted to transmit what if feels like to be on the so-called emotional roller-coaster', to deeply honour that complex experience in all its detail. Ways of loving, the mysteries of the body, the vagaries of science, the ethics of medicine - the material raised so many questions. I started writing it very soon after I made the decision to stop treatment because I wanted to capture my strong feelings before they were blanketed by time. I wanted to write something for all the women who are contemplating IVF, or currently undergoing it, or who have stopped or who are thinking about stopping (it's so hard - the decision to give up)' I wanted to speak to their family and friends. I wanted to speak to young women who in a misguided way might be relying on fertility treatment as a kind of back-up. And I wanted to speak to the policy makers too. Since there is so much IVF failure I wanted to provide an alternative voice to the miracle stories we frequently see in the media. I wanted to counter the push - yes, the push - of the worldwide multi-billion dollar IVF industry.'
Now...I have a spare copy of Avalanche and would very much like to pass it on to anyone who feels it may be helpful to read, or knows someone they could pass it on to and for whom it would be relevant.
Please e mail me at dovegreyreader at gmaildot com and I will send it.
Update : The book has now been re-homed. To all those who have emailed, thank you.