Exceptions only prove the rule: we always invoke “The Handmaid’s Talefrom 1985 to show what happens when women lose the right to choose. Margaret Atwood’s dystopia continues to set the literary tone, inspiring apocalyptic novels as brilliant as Leni Zumas’red clocks“and Naomi Alderman”The power.”
And even when abortion does feature in works of realistic fiction, it tends to be central to the story rather than a natural part of the character’s world. It is a marker that is certainly imprecise but reveals our clumsy gaze on the subject. For example, abortion is a “hot topic” in “Jodi Picoult”A spark of light”; abortion inspires shocking violence by Joyce Carol Oates”A Book of American Martyrs.”
Imagine if, instead, we had read decades of novels in which abortion figured as naturally and frequently as other once-controversial elements of real life, such as extramarital sex, divorce, and interracial marriage. The scarcity of such accounts has contributed to America’s half-century of disgust with reproductive health, and that, in turn, has allowed a group of religious zealots to insist that bodily autonomy remains a legitimate topic of debate in a country that claims to cherish freedom.
Jennifer Haigh’s surprisingly sober new novel, “Mercy Streetexplores the precarious status of safe and legal abortion in a country where disapproval comes in a thick mix of class snobbery, theological absolutism and misogynistic bigotry. Coincidentally, “Mercy Street” is likely to be the last abortion-focused novel to appear before our newly reconstituted Supreme Court reasserts state control over women’s bodies. And yet, it’s not so much a clarion call as a melancholy assessment of the stalemate that has long reigned in the United States.
Beginning with her first novel, “Mrs. Kimble,” Haigh was a brilliant witness to the struggles of ordinary people. In “Mercy Street,” she returns to Boston, the setting of “Faith,” her sensitive novel about a Catholic priest. and her family caught up in the sex abuse scandal.The church appears again in this new story but only to hover along the periphery.This time Haigh is more concerned with the plight of the severely isolated.
At the center of “Mercy Street” is Claudia, an experienced counselor at a downtown Boston reproductive health clinic. Work protocols in a building surrounded by potentially violent activists have become routine for Claudia. “Protesters were a reality,” Haigh writes, “a daily nuisance like traffic or bad weather.” Ditto for bomb threats, suspect callers and active fire drills. Of course, it’s all incredibly stressful, but Claudia’s only concern is giving women the care they need. She is well beyond the discussion of the essential services she and her colleagues provide.
Haigh seems well aware of the heavy curtain that has been drawn on these services. A large part of his novel is dedicated to demystifying this daily work. She lets us listen in as Claudia answers the hotline, patiently answering the same questions over and over again, starting with “How much does it cost?” We also see a series of people brave the phalanx of protesters and come to the clinic. For some young women, an abortion is just a brief break from a successful life. For some elderly women who have learned that their fetuses are not viable, the procedure is the horrifying conclusion to their struggle for a family. And for others, it’s just another disturbance in a chaotic life. Some clients are shockingly misinformed about their bodies; others are scared or sick or homeless – or all three. “The problem, always, was knowing which variable to solve”, thinks Claudia. “Which fire did you put out first?” »
Haigh attacks the hypocrisy of so-called “pro-life” conservatives. Nothing angers Claudia more than the extraordinary concern daily protesters pour on poor women right up to the moment they give birth – at which point the utterly unprepared new mother is simply an irritating profiteer for American capitalists to condemn or condemn. ignore. “The dark struggle of her life – the harsh daily realities that made motherhood impossible – didn’t trouble them at all,” Claudia thinks.
“Mercy Street” carefully maps out the geography of poverty, that invisible realm that lies just beyond the horizon of middle-class life. Without condescension or sentimentality, Haigh describes people yearning to live in a double-wide trailer, having to choose between paying the water bill and the cable bill, feeling the humiliation of using food stamps. Indeed, this life was Claudia’s adolescence, a journey that makes her particularly sensitive to the logic of the clinic’s poorest clients.
In addition, Claudia’s mother, who had no particular interest in parenthood, took children into foster care expressly to get extra money from the state. Haigh never dwells on this theme, but she doesn’t need to: it’s clear that Claudia’s early exposure to the multitude of children unwanted by anyone and carelessly stored away by the government made her determined to provide women with real reproductive choices.
But, of course, there are forces determined to stifle that freedom, and “Mercy Street” ultimately pivots to feature a few pro-life warriors – or at least a warrior and his needy lieutenant. It’s a testament to Haigh’s empathy that these men are flayed alive by her with such gentleness. She traces the tangle of bad luck, bad decisions and bad prospects that keeps them trapped. She understands how, deprived of any other chance of success, fantasies of saving the “unborn” endow these marginalized characters with a synthetic sense of meaning, even importance.
While moving from Claudia at the clinic to pro-life activists conspiring on the internet, Haigh gradually choreographs the kind of confrontation we expect and dread at the end of the abortion controversy. Ultimately, however, “Mercy Street” eschews such climactic melodrama and sticks to its basic decency.
Is it overkill to want this novel to be not just hopeful but prophetic?