Baby X is an intriguing novel. I must admit I find clinical intelligent thriller-y type things interesting (see my obsession with House), but this genre, if you can call it that, is rarely coupled with emotional intelligence. Baby X is a great achievement just from the outset: it’s an intelligent novel with a heart.
We begin with Dr Alex Mansfield driving a new-born baby to her grandmother’s old house. Alex is worried and tells us that ‘I did what I had to do.’ Why does she have this baby? And why is it called X?
Alex’s story is interspersed with Karen’s. Karen and her husband have had many miscarriages and they approached Dr Mansfield so that they can realise their dreams of becoming parents. Alex wants to grow the first baby outside of a human body; the imagery of the artificial womb in the lab is sharply drawn. These women’s stories are alternated with chapters dating from ‘much later’ at an inquiry, as we piece together Alex’s actions from her workmates and try to come to terms with what made her steal the baby.
Alex is a complicated character and, initially, I was worried that she would prove too complicated. There are some issues I thought I would have when I started this book – why can’t a woman be a doctor without her maternal instincts getting in the way? In the wrong hands this book could have bordered on offensive, it could have been a “single doctor woman” vs “want desperately to be a mother and have a family woman” but it goes far deeper and is infinitely more compassionate than that. Alex’s reasoning is organic, apart from one major coincidence which felt a little too much.
The inner worlds of both Karen and Alex are well drawn, but so is outer society. The press is following the first artificial baby avidly, keen to moralise about perfect babies and things not “being natural”, which felt too real. Karen and her husband are hounded into an interview and the journalist forces their story into the one that she wants, resulting in heartache for the couple. There is also an interesting meeting between Karen and an online troll, which showcases Smith’s compassion and willingness to write something that doesn’t tread old arguments but confronts society as it is.
There is a also thriller aspect with a troublesome ex-boyfriend of Alex’s; this builds throughout the novel, which is running over three timelines. The pace never slows because of this and shows excellent plotting.
I read Baby X so quickly and would definitely read more by Rebecca Ann Smith. Mother’s Milk Books have done it again – they are carving out an identity for themselves as a publisher of compassionate stories, stories which aren’t saying the same thing as everybody else.
Baby X is available from Mother’s Milk Books.