Sneaky abortion novels? They’re a new movement, and I’ve signed up
We can’t write about young women without writing about the Eighth Amendment
Marian Keyes: her latest novel, The Break, features a heartbreaking account of the difficulties in accessing abortion as an Irish woman. Photograph: Alan Betson
I have never been on trend. As a kid, before I learned how to embrace “weird” – along with black clothing and stripy tights – I yearned for the (often trashy) brand-name clothing that my classmates showed off and that my parents rightly refused to overpay for. As a teenager I was deeply embarrassed about my fondest hobby – being a published writer – and kept it from friends and classmates for as long as possible. (Two weeks before publication date, as it turned out.)
So you’ll understand that it’s odd for me to be on the edges of a movement this year. The movement is something that hasn’t happened before in Irish fiction. Something that’s still quiet in some ways, a campaign more subtle than didactic. But something that is definitely happening. I call it the sneaky-abortion-novel movement – although I welcome suggestions for better names.
Earlier this year my young-adult novel Like Other Girls – which tackles many issues but, let’s face it, is mostly about abortion and the need to repeal the Eighth Amendment – was published by Hot Key Books, a UK house that is, fortunately for me, more invested in authenticity than in “appropriateness”.
In young-adult fiction, and commercial fiction more widely, it is still almost taboo to depict abortion
In young-adult fiction, and commercial fiction more widely, it is still almost taboo to depict abortion. Most teen-pregnancy narratives emphasise the benefits of adoption or the importance of motherhood (often realised only postbirth), in this respect echoing Catholic crisis-pregnancy agencies, which purport to offer impartial advice but in practice offer only anti-choice options. Sure, have the baby and then decide.
AM Stephenson’s Unbirthday, from 1981, stands in stark contrast to other teen-pregnancy texts of the time for portraying an abortion that is a good thing for (and doesn’t lead to the death of!) the potential mother. It follows the notorious Sybil, of Judy Blume’s Forever . . . (1975), giving a baby up for adoption – she insists on having “the experience” of giving birth – while Liz in Paul Zindel’s My Darling, My Hamburger, from 1969, seems haunted by her abortion. Adoption is heavily emphasised in texts such as Annie’s Baby (1998), by Beatrice Sparks (known for Go Ask Alice, among other “true stories”) and Angel’s Choice (2006), by Lauren Baratz-Logsted, and keeping an unplanned child is celebrated in texts like Sarah Dessen’s Someone Like You (1998).
Abortion is a difficult matter to handle for dramatic purposes, of course. A 2015 study at the University of California exploring women’s emotional responses after abortion found that 95 per cent of participants did not regret the procedure and mainly felt relief. For fiction writers this offers little room for conflict and interesting storytelling. So although the sister of the protagonist in Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower, from 1999, undergoes the procedure, it is still rare to see the protagonist herself choose abortion.
Jenny Hubbard’s And We Stay, from 2014, and Christine Heppermann’s Ask Me How I Got Here, which was published in 2016, are revolutionary in this respect, although it is worth noting that these are not debut novels for either author (and therefore less risky bets for the publishers). In both texts we witness the aftermath for young women who have chosen abortion and for whom it was the right choice – a still-controversial decision for protagonists in young-adult fiction.
Crime fiction has also edged into this territory. Adrian McKinty’s Rain Dogs acknowledges “the Great Abortion Trail, walked by thousands of Irish women and girls every year” – a journey often taken in, and kept in, silence, regardless of the emotional response to the procedure.
There is little drama in a protagonist choosing the right option for her; having a character regret an abortion, against the odds, may be valid but is also unlikely
But that sense of relief, that overwhelming experience most women have, even if accompanied by feelings of grief or guilt, still makes for terrible fiction. There is little drama in a protagonist choosing the right option for her; having a character regret an abortion, against the odds, may be valid but is also unlikely.
In the context of an under-represented subject, focusing on the minority can make the author appear anti-choice. Even writers wishing to tackle the issue of post-abortion regret are faced with the often troubling implications of seeming as if they oppose terminations full stop.
The first time I encountered mostly guilt-free abortion in fiction – paired with the repressive attitude in Ireland – was in Maeve Binchy’s debut novel, Light a Penny Candle, from 1982. Binchy never shied away from the issues affecting the lives of Irish women, despite being often dismissed as “merely” a women’s fiction writer. She touches on abortion in several of her short stories, but Light a Penny Candle (which takes place in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s) is her most explicit engagement with the topic.
It’s significant not just because we see one of the main characters undergo an illegal abortion (which her supportive, although Catholic, best friend reminds her is a “mortal sin”) but also for its insights into other options. Early in the novel a mother of six realises her period is late and chooses not to tell anyone, even her priest, as she takes a large gin to an extrahot bath for four nights running, until things resume. The secrets of women were laid bare on the page.
Perhaps the introduction of the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution, in 1983, is partly to blame for the relative silence of Irish commercial fiction on the issue since then, particularly in light of restrictions on “information” being shared with Irish women. It is telling that Eilis Ni Dhuibhne’s 2015 novel Aisling nó Iníon A (“Aisling or Miss A”), which details a teenage girl’s voyage to England to obtain an abortion, has not been translated from Irish – it is difficult even to find reviews in English. As late as autumn 2016, commercial novels dealing with the topic, such as Jennifer Burke’s One Monday Morning, strove to be as “balanced” as a public-service broadcaster with its characters’ opinions, often to the detriment of the plot, while Bernice Barrington’s psychological thriller Sisters and Lies, that same year, saw one of the narrators continually attacked for revealing in a memoir that she’d had an abortion, without any information offered about the hows and whys.
Even fiction tackling reproductive rights could be treated as something closer to journalism by both readers and activists
The “promotion” of abortion in Ireland is still a tricky subject, one potentially subject to financial penalties. The risk was most recently cited in September by Katie Ascough, the now former student-union president at University College Dublin, when asked to explain the costly last-minute reprinting of student handbooks to exclude information about abortion. In this context even fiction tackling reproductive rights could be treated as something closer to journalism by both readers and activists, so it makes sense that 2017 has seen much more of the sneaky-abortion-novel movement – the titles that are not quite about abortion, bodily autonomy and reproductive rights, and don’t immediately identify themselves as “issue” books, but somehow sneak them in.
The first is a literary novel. Paula McGrath’s A History of Running Away is a clever comparison of reproductive law with the limitations around women’s boxing, pairing up the aftermath of the Savita Halappanavar case with Katie Taylor’s performance at the 2012 Olympics. McGrath’s narrative slips between the 1980s and the 2010s, carefully portraying two societies that shame and control women in different ways.
Marian Keyes subtly poses a soul-destroying question: what happens to the girls who do not have someone in their corner, fighting for them?
As with Marian Keyes’s latest novel, The Break, discussion about A History of Running Away even before its release suggested that McGrath would touch on the case for repealing the Eighth Amendment – but both texts offer much more than polemic. With Keyes the woman in question is a girl in her late teens whom the protagonist needs to take care of and advocate for – a heartbreaking account of the difficulties in accessing abortion as an Irish woman and, more subtly, the poser of a soul-destroying question: what happens to the girls who do not have someone in their corner, fighting for them?
Keyes has addressed abortion before. Her first novel, Watermelon, from 1995, sees its protagonist, Claire, weeping on a plane and convinced that the flight attendants think she’s probably just had an abortion, while Angels, from 2002, features a protagonist whose guilt about a teenage abortion fuels her anxieties about the miscarriages she experiences in her 30s. But The Break is the first time we witness a character going through the process, even though, as with McGrath’s work, it still feels at a distance.
If you’ve read anything about either of these novels you will have a sense that they address the abortion issue, and you will have decided, accordingly, whether to read them. Stop reading here if you’d prefer to avoid spoilers for two more novels that you might not expect to tackle the topic. Ironically, these are the two titles I suspect are more powerful, precisely because they slip the issue in when we don’t expect it.
Love in Row 27, by the journalist and critic Eithne Shortall, is in many respects a traditional romantic comedy. The premise is that the young woman on the check-in desk is determined to matchmake her passengers, even as her own life is falling apart. Among the more ingenious aspects of this novel are the interludes that focus on the passengers – who sometimes get along and sometimes don’t.
Megan, a young woman travelling home after an abortion, is among these characters. Paired up, unsuccessfully, with a college debater, she listens wearily to his hypotheticals as she breathes in and out to distract herself from the pain. There is an absolute lack of sermonising in the text, which only adds to the frustration of this woman going through something real and tangible while her male peer speculates and hypothesises. For Shortall an airport-based romance cannot take place without acknowledging the 10-12 women a day travelling from Ireland to Britain for abortions – and although the point is not hammered home, it is certainly made.
Based on what is in essence a Facebook meme, Emer McLysaght and Sarah Breen’s Oh My God, What a Complete Aisling: The Novel seems unlikely as a source for political unrest. The sweet, gently comic narrative of a country girl in the Big Schmoke that is Dublin seems innocent and delightful at first but then delves into deeper issues. The ever-relatable Aisling must deal with her father’s failing health, but her new flatmate has another problem to tackle: she’s pregnant.
The flatmate decides to reveal this, of course, while down for the weekend with Aisling’s lovely family. And in a moment that is among the most powerful of the novel, Aisling’s mammy reveals why she doesn’t have a problem with the flatmate wanting to terminate the pregnancy. Sure didn’t she have an abortion herself?
Let me tell you about the time a future nurse cornered me to fret about getting pregnant via oral sex
In sharing this with Aisling, and the reader, her mammy challenges the stereotypical idea of who has abortions. Planned Parenthood, the American reproductive-healthcare organisation, notes that more than 60 per cent of women who choose abortion are already mothers: those, in short, who already know how hard it is. How difficult it is, emotionally, financially and all the rest, to parent one child, let alone two, let alone three, or four, or five. Like Caitlin Moran, who has spoken and written on this issue, Aisling’s mammy knows her limits: she is capable of being a good parent to two children. More than that would be pushing it, and harmful for all involved, as far as she’s concerned.
This is not a message you expect from the cutesy cover of Oh My God, What a Complete Aisling: The Novel, yet it makes perfect sense from a pair of young women journalists, because how do you tell any story about young women in Ireland today without noting the Eighth Amendment? The fear of pregnancy – and, by extension, forced birth – hangs over every sexual encounter, regardless of accuracy. (Let me tell you about the time a future nurse cornered me to fret about getting pregnant via oral sex.)
As more real women tell their stories and break the silence, it becomes clear that abortion is already an everyday fact of Irish life. In the coming years we’ll see more novels with abortion as their central theme, and literary works from light romcoms to crime thrillers will continue to acknowledge how common abortion is for Irish women. Unlike the Eighth Amendment, it’s not going to go away.