Dawn Barker’s novel Let Her Go is a psychological thriller about surrogacy and its consequences, set in contemporary Western Australia.
Surrogacy is a hot topic, given the recent case of the WA couple who paid a Thai surrogate to have their twins, only to take the healthy baby girl home and leave the boy, Gammy, born with Downs Syndrome, behind in Thailand – a scandal magnified when it was revealed the father had a criminal record for sex offenses involving minors.
But Barker’s novel consciously distances itself from commercial arrangements, exploring instead the risks and complications that can arise when surrogacy is altruistic and takes place within families.
Zoe and Nadia are stepsisters, raised together from a young age. Nadia, married to Eddie, is the mother of three children. Zoe and her husband Lachlan have been trying unsuccessfully to have a child. As the story opens, Zoe has just learned she will never be able to have a baby; her body has gone into early menopause as a result of medication taken for chronic illness.
Zoe quickly dismisses adoption on the grounds that she wants her ‘own child’, and because adopted children are damaged, ‘scarred by that loss’ of being given up by their mothers. Nadia shares Zoe’s misgivings about adoption, suggesting eligible children are ‘disturbed’.
The option of overseas commercial surrogacy is also mooted. But Zoe baulks at both the commercial nature of overseas surrogacy, and the idea of raising a child that was ‘Lachlan’s and someone else’s’:
Zoe had thought about it, but feared that she might never be able to love a child who reminded her of her failings every time she looked at it. (p. 37)
Again, Nadia’s attitudes reinforce Zoe’s. Nadia finds the idea of paying a stranger in a poor country both dodgy and distasteful.
‘I don’t trust anyone who’d want to make a profit from this. I want to give her a child because I’m family, and because she’d do it for me.’ (p. 54)
Although both husbands suggest it might be ‘easier’ to ‘use a stranger’, the women succeed in bringing the men around. Nadia acts as a traditional surrogate for Zoe and Lachlan and gives birth to baby Louise. A legal order is issued recognising Zoe and Lachlan as Louise’s parents, and everything seems fine.
But the road to hell is paved with good intentions, as the saying goes; and trouble is prefigured in the novel’s prologue describing Zoe’s flight to Rottnest Island by ferry on a stormy sea with baby Louise held to her chest.
Barker sets up a tense family drama and Let Her Go is a genuine page turner. The narrative point of view shifts among Zoe, Nadia and a teenage Louise, exploring the issues involved from each of their perspectives. Zoe struggles with the ferocity of her love for Louise, and her anxiety about Nadia’s claim on her. Nadia experiences the same grief from giving up Louise as women who relinquish their children for adoption. And Louise, for whom an ‘old familiar numbness’ has led to drug use and self-harm, feels like ‘a part of her [is] missing.’
Some heavy handed dialogue notwithstanding, Barker shares with authors like Wendy James and Honey Brown an ability to inject credible drama into ordinary people’s lives, encouraging readers to imagine what they would do in similar circumstances.
In reading group notes at the end of the book, Barker says she was drawn to write about surrogacy after watching a documentary on the topic and re-reading The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood:
I personally felt conflicted: being a mother myself, I would never deny anyone the right to experience the joy of being a parent, but there are ethical issues to consider. I wanted to write Let Her Go to explore my own feelings about this complex issue. (pp. 331-332)
Let Her Go ultimately raises more questions than answers about surrogacy. But Barker’s novel can and should contribute to current national discussions about infertility, surrogacy, parenthood and the rights of the child.
Let Her Go by Dawn Barker (2014) is published by Hachette Australia. Click here for the podcast of my review for Radio National Books and Arts Daily, Wednesday 17 September 2014.
This review has been submitted as part of the Australian Women Writers Challenge.