Review by Amy Taylor
Florence Brown is a pregnant Museum Curator torn between her love for two men: her doting husband, Robert, and her pioneering paediatrician lover, Thomas. Except that she isn’t torn at all: she insists that it is possible to love two men, and that her prolonged adultery is the very thing that makes her happy. But who is the father of her unborn baby? Meanwhile, troubled Helen is a midwife grieving for her baby, lost before it even had a chance to be alive – having to ‘give death, rather than birth’. These Are Our Children explores the familiar themes of love, loss and betrayal: but the novel itself is anything but familiar.
In her second novel, Maxwell showcases her talent for writing intelligent prose about difficult subjects in a heartfelt way whilst injecting her own brand of dark humour. It is a real page-turner in terms of its simple elegance and sense of drama, and the plot is enhanced by the smoothly-sculpted mimetic narrative which is punctuated with Maxwell’s dry witticisms. Just when you think you will be treated to some cosy Sunday night drama-style sentimentality, Maxwell swoops in with a brutal reality-check, leaving the reader in no doubt that this is no Bridget Jones’s Diary. No, the language used is often audaciously raw and unabashed, whether it is a hard-hitting exploration of the ethics of prenatal intervention or an exasperated expression of post-operative frustration.
It can’t be denied that some of the most honest — albeit unflattering — descriptions of premature babies are to be found here: from a ‘human whoopee cushion’ to a ‘supermarket chicken’, as well as other particularly offensive analogies which readers will be sure to remember. True, these are not perhaps the sort of descriptions many new mothers would sanction, but this daringly insistent honesty expressed in humour forms the heart and beauty of the book. For Maxwell is clearly not afraid of courting controversy: she makes no secret of the fact that the novel is inspired by her own personal experiences, and we can easily empathise with many of these. From Florence's awkward embarrassment at her involuntary lactation, to her frequent swipes at seemingly incompetent NHS employees, we can see where she's coming from.
Indeed, the two main female protagonists are carefully characterized with sympathy and realism through seamless mimesis to create a story that is simultaneously moving, funny and disturbing. Occasionally, the stream-of-consciousness technique proves to be a bit too subtle, and we often struggle to decipher what’s behind some of Florence’s ‘love letters’, but for the main part it is used successfully to create a more immediate sense of realism and to draw the reader closer to the characters. Flashbacks sit slightly awkwardly in the narrative relatively early on, but they do add to our sense of knowing the two women — charting Florence’s sexual appetite and Helen’s less-than-perfect childhood — and we are better able to empathise with their reactions following the ensuing dramatic events.
We sense that Florence is initially too preoccupied with her own problems to think of the baby: ‘for a whole minute, Florence was able to forget herself as she watched the heart beating on the monitor’, but we later sympathise with her surreal and uncertain feelings when she first encounters her own baby amidst the unnatural environment in the Special Care Baby Unit. Florence’s natural irritability also provides some light relief from the general intensity of the novel in the form of a little humour attacking hospital conditions: ‘Well, it was their fault anyway. If they hadn’t made so many mistakes and stopped her from sleeping all night, then she might not have flipped in the first place. Even the bed linen was noisy. Made of taffeta, by the sound if it.’
Conversely, we immediately warm to a humble, ponderous Helen in her grief — ‘there had to be some purpose, which she could not yet fathom, for which she had been made to suffer’ — but may alter our views following her later actions. Maxwell examines the ethics of neonatal intervention without judgement in her powerful prose: they may keep these precious, fragile little organisms alive, but at what cost? Nevertheless, the novel is not defined by its controversy. The exploration of Helen’s grief at the loss of her dead baby is undoubtedly moving, even if it turns into something more extreme.
Although it is a story told from the women’s perspective, it is a shame that the male protagonists aren’t drawn with the same consideration. Thomas as the arrogant celebrity medic and the affable, loyal Labrador Robert come across as rather two-dimensional. Despite the contextualization of Robert and Florence’s relationship through the flashbacks, we don’t end up knowing anything more about Robert other than the fact that he is a well-intentioned, ‘nice-guy-who-tries-hard’.
Meanwhile, for all Thomas's scientific genius, he rather inexplicably seems to go soft at the knees for a local village’s museum curator who seems to lose her backbone (we know she does have one) whenever we catch a glimpse of his mildly chauvinistic dominance and authority: 'a gentle frown spread across his forehead and it was all for her'. Although he show tenderness towards Florence, Thomas is generally an unlikeable character, although some of his rather nasty, arrogant internalised quips are worth a snigger: ‘Members of his research team had sometimes been good at tracking down filter coffee’.
In essence, this is a thoughtful, engaging book with a bit of a bite to it: those with a sturdy constitution and intellectual curiosity should read on, but any rom-com handkerchief twitchers who may have initially been attracted by the sentimental, soft-focus sepia cover should perhaps give it a wide berth.