Dead Babies and Seaside Towns is a book from those brilliant people at Unbound. If you haven’t come across this independent publishing house yet, its basic premise is that authors pitch books on the site and if you like the sound of their idea, you pledge to fund the book, buying a copy and possibly other rewards in the process. They’ve had great success in particular with Letters of Note and The Wake by Paul Kingsolver, which was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2014.
I was one of the people who pledged to fund Jolly’s Dead Babies and Seaside Towns. You would probably assume I did so because I wanted to read it but actually I had little intention of ever opening the front cover. I helped to fund the book because I have two close friends who, between them, have suffered miscarriages, a stillbirth and an infant death. I’ve seen one of them go through multiple rounds of IVF and the other wrestle with depression. Having never been or ever wanted to be pregnant, with no desire to have children of my own (I’m an accidental step-parent: I fell in love with someone who already had a young son and a stepdaughter), I can see what wanting to be a parent means to other people but I only have a limited understanding of it myself. I contributed to the funding because I could see that Jolly’s story was important even if I couldn’t identify with it.
I ended up reading it because Jolly and I have a mutual friend through whom Jolly contacted me and asked if I’d take part in a blog tour for the book. I agreed and then kept forgetting about it. On remembering I’d think, oh goodness, I’m going to have to read it. I put it off until the latest I knew I could get away with and still manage to read the whole thing and write a review in time for my slot on the tour. That was Saturday lunchtime. By the time I went to bed that evening, I was fifty pages from the end, having done little else other than read the book for the rest of the day. Not because I knew I had to but because it’s absolutely bloody brilliant.
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. But now our legal team – one law firm in America, two law firms in England and a barrister – have been in touch to say that I need to write a twenty-page statement explaining everything that happened. They need this in preparation for our hearing in the High Court.
The hearing at the High Court is almost the end of Jolly’s story – or at least the end of the one she’s written. Before we get there, she takes us chronologically from the beginning, when her son, Thomas, is two and she is sixteen weeks pregnant. She’s already bled briefly at eleven weeks but it’s begun again and the hospital in Brussels, two miles from their house, tells her to go in for a scan.
There seems to be some delay with the appointments…Apparently there’s an emergency so some routine appointments will have to wait. Stephen and I nod at each other. We are polite and reasonable people, the kind of people who almost relish an opportunity to stand aside and let some other more needy person take our place. Another doctor emerges, peers at me, disappears.
Then I understand. I am the emergency.
The scan reveals that the placenta is partly detached. It’s possible the baby will survive but Jolly is at serious risk of infection. The only thing they can do is wait and hope they don’t lose the baby at six or seven months. Trying to get as much rest as possible while looking after a two-year-old, Jolly continues to bleed regularly.
One night, lying in bed, I hear a loud and rhythmic banging coming from next door. It echoes through the walls of the house and thumps inside my head. It seems odd that our neighbours should start doing building work late at night – and what are they doing which involves this loud and regular hammering? Stephen comes up to bed and I mention that the noise is keeping me awake. He tells me that there is no noise. And I realise that what I’m hearing is my own fear.
I won’t keep quoting at length although it would be so easy to do so. Jolly writes with her novelist’s eyes and ears. The prose is precise and detailed, the sentences rhythmic and often repetitive, highlighting Jolly’s feelings – So this is it then. Our baby has died – and the mundanity of the everyday churning on while she faces such wrenching moments, days, months: I put the washing machine on, hang clothes on the line, load the dishwasher, write a short story, wipe Thomas’ nose.
The detached placenta is only the beginning of the story. A sudden fever strikes Jolly a few days from the twenty-four weeks along she needs to be for her baby to be delivered prematurely. At the point when she thinks the infection is clearing her waters break and her baby, Laura, is delivered stillborn.
Photograph by Sylvain Guenot
Jolly describes the book as ‘Laura’s story’ and she is ever present in the rest of the book as Jolly begins to read the stories of others who’ve had stillborn babies, as she goes through the trauma of being told they should try for another baby soon because of her age, as she has several more miscarriages, as they go through IVF treatment, as they try to adopt, as she sees friends become pregnant and deliver live, healthy babies.
Listed like that, the events that occur in Jolly’s life (at least those she focuses on in the book) sound relentlessly grim. But the book is not. This results from a combination of Laura being alive throughout the book, Jolly’s discussions regarding faith, the hierarchy of grief, the moral arguments around IVF and adoption, her son, her friends, and Jolly’s tone which I can only describe as straight to the point of bluntness. There is no dressing up the continuous horror of losing babies, of the attempts to find a way to have a second child, and neither is it mawkish. Although on the surface we have little in common, I find myself thinking I’d probably like her a lot.
The reason for Jolly writing the twenty-pages for the High Court mentioned earlier is that she and her husband eventually decide to have a baby via a surrogate. This is illegal in the UK so they go through an American agency. This is complicated and costly as well as coming loaded with preconceptions from others. As with the rest of the book, Jolly is precise as to the steps her and her husband go through as well as how she feels at different stages of the procedure. It’s a fascinating story.
Dead Babies and Seaside Towns is an important book; I suspect it could be seminal for women who’ve been through similar losses to Jolly. It is also beautifully crafted and compelling. I’m so glad I did read it, it’s one of the best books I’ve read this year.