There's a new baby in my second novel, Her (a book about motherhood, friendship and identity, and all the things that can go wrong with that mix). Like most newborns, she looks terrifically off-putting. Her parents, flummoxed by her appearance, find themselves stuck for a name. "'She doesn't look much like a Madeleine,' Ben whispers. 'Well, suck it up, she doesn't look much like a Cecily, either,' I whisper back. 'She looks like a Norma. Maybe a Belinda or a Pam.'" In fact, her parents get off lightly, and Cecily turns out to be pretty delightful, but there's a fine tradition of bad fictional babies, the sort of small person you really wouldn't want to find in your bassinet. Here are some of my favorites.
The Fifth Child by Doris Lessing
Harriet and David's large house in the London suburbs is a riot of infants, guests and happiness -- until the conception of their fifth child. Harriet's pregnancy is exceptionally grueling ("Sometimes she believed hooves were cutting her tender inside flesh, sometimes claws"), the birth is a terrible ordeal, and the child Ben, when he finally arrives, is not prepossessing, weighing eleven pounds and resembling a troll or a goblin. Yellowish and "full of cold dislike," he tears Harriet to shreds when she attempts to breastfeed him; Ben's siblings are frightened of him, and guests soon stop visiting. Harriet and David can only watch as this baffling, violent creature sets about wrecking their idyll. Whether you read it as allegory, cautionary tale or horror story,
The Fifth Child
makes you ask yourself some difficult questions. It will also remind you to check that your contraceptives are in order.
London Fields by Martin Amis
Guy Clinch is the novel's punching bag, and the most devastating uppercuts are delivered by his infant son, Marmaduke (birthweight: just shy of one stone). "World-famous pediatricians marveled at his hyperactivity, and knelt like magi to his genius for colic. Every half hour he noisily drained his mother's sore breasts; often he would take a brief nap around midnight; the rest of the time he spent screaming." Guy and his wife Hope (ha!), like all those exiting the labour ward, are singularly ill-prepared for what lies in store, and baby Marmaduke seems to enjoy throwing everything at them. Riddled with asthma and eczema, endlessly processing terrible viruses, he rewards embraces with "a powerful eye-poke or a jet of vomit." And yet Guy loves Marmaduke, "despite the clear sense, constantly refreshed, that Marmaduke had no lovable qualities. Marmaduke gave no pleasure to anyone except when he was asleep."
The Hours Before Dawn by Celia Fremlin
This, Fremlin's first book (1958), is characteristic: domesticity boil-washed with a ghastly trippy dread. Louise is a housewife with a new baby, two older children and an unsympathetic husband. Her problems become ever more complicated as the novel develops -- but, as all parents know, without a few hours' sleep it's impossible to make sense of anything. Anxious that the rest of the family should get some rest, Louise sacrifices herself to the endlessly bawling Michael. She and the baby spend their nights in the scullery, two shut doors insulating the sleepers upstairs. "There she could sit, her feet propped on the mangle, her head drooping against the draining-board, and jig her baby up and down -- up and down; while behind her the taps dripped in the darkness. There she would stay; and presently she would be neither sleeping nor waking; neither thinking nor at peace; scarcely aware of the cold striking up from the stone floor. And her head would sink further and further over the throbbing little body... the screams would become part of an uneasy dream... People, crowds of people, shouting, calling, demanding... rushing for a train in a station full of screams and whistles and roars..."
We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver
The newborn Kevin rejects his mother's breast ("he sucked a time or two, but turned away, the bluish milk running down his chin. He'd cough, and perhaps I imagined it, he even seemed to gag") and it's all downhill from there. Eva -- ambivalent about motherhood even before his conception -- is frankly appalled by the baby. "He hurled his voice like a weapon, howls smashing the walls of our loft like a baseball bat bashing a bus shelter." Kevin turns out to be good at throwing things (toys, porridge, crackers) and pulling things (hair, silk scarves). Abruptly, he stops screaming, and becomes oppressively, worryingly mute. "So he would sit, in the playpen or on the floor, for hours, his unlit eyes stirring with an unfocused disaffection." Nannies flee in panic. His parents' relationship collapses. Kevin's first words, when they finally come, are: "I don like dat."
The Pursuit of Love by Nancy Mitford
"Poor thing," said Linda indifferently. "It's really kinder not to look."
"Don't pay any attention to her," said the Sister. "She pretends to be a wicked woman, but it's all put on."
I did look, and deep down among the frills and lace, there was the usual horrid sight of a howling orange in a fine black wig.
"Isn't she sweet," said the Sister. "Look at her liitle hands."
I shuddered slightly, and said: "Well, I know it's dreadful of me, but I don't much like them as small as that; I'm sure she'll be divine in a year or two."
The wails now entered on a crescendo, and the whole room was filled with hideous noise.
"Poor soul," said Linda. "I think it must have caught sight of itself in a glass. Do take it away, Sister."
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