Book Jacket

 

rank 5921
word count 33627
date submitted 19.01.2009
date updated 10.02.2009
genres: Literary Fiction
classification: moderate
complete

Dead Babies

Lesley McKenna

A novella that explores stillbirth and its consequences, the breakdown of a marriage, and the desperate nature of love beyond death.

 

Lucy Owen is pregnant again after miscarrying several times, and she and her husband Alex, are very much looking forward to the birth. When Lucy and Alex's much wanted son, Jonathan, is finally delivered - stillborn - they are each launched into their own personal hells. Hospitalised with psychosis, Lucy copes by pretending it hasn't happened. She lies about her condition, pretending to cooperate, and is sent home. She withdraws from Alex and their marriage, continuing to imagine and live in a world where a ghostly Jonathan never died, where he thrives and grows into a precocious, perfect child, and where an odd friendship with a strange creature called Verity emerges, ultimately to be betrayed. Alex, a lecturer, begins an affair with a younger woman, one of his students, and finds himself repeating his mistakes, with fatal consequences. A novella about how people and relationships crack beneath the intense strain of grief, Dead Babies follows a marriage through breakdown, betrayal and insanity. Dead Babies was shortlisted for the Cinnamon Press novella prize in 2007, and was the original special project for my BA in Creative Writing at the University of Bedfordshire.

 
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tags

betrayal, death, delusions, grief, insanity, love, magic realist, unfaithfulness

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17 comments

 

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Orlando Furioso wrote 1320 days ago

I had a look. As a bloke I assumed that I wld never read a story on this subject. But that seemed a little blinkered. So wld I read? I might if I'd experienced such loss myself. I might read to gain understanding. I had a look at the first few graphs and immediately thought of my own experiences as a father, my concentration immediately straying from the story. I then began to think about the title ... DEAD BABIES. Wld I feel comfortable being seen on the Jubilee Line reading DEAD BABIES? I know this might sound silly, but it did cross my mind. I think the title is difficult. But then the subject is difficult.I suppose the title faces the subject head on, but i think it is a bit heavy. I think my bloke gene wld trump my nice guy sub-gene and I wld put the book back back on the shelf were I in a bookshop. I wld feel pleased with myself that I had considered reading it, but wld feel relieved that I'd spared myself. Reading about blokes inflicing pain on other blokes with animal cunning is much easier than getting to grips with the emotional pain of your subject. I wld never read such a title for joy, or escape. The more I think about it I can feel ome atavistic part of me asserting itself, a little voice saying we shuld always focus on life not death, that life is for the living and that we should never become trapped in loops of grief, at least not to the extent that they ruin our lives. But then I admit that if a woman has had repeat miscarriages it wld be a terrible burden to bear. But nature is terrible in many ways. My belief is that our response has to be positive. At least you have me thinking about the subject. But I've also arrived at my position now. But were I in the bookshop I wld move on ... that title ... ach, that title!

DKTD1 wrote 1529 days ago

I imagine this was as difficult to write as it is to read. You can actually feel the horror and pain Lucy feels in every word. Brutal.

Backed.
Dan-
Eunice and Ethan.

Scraps2point0 wrote 1559 days ago

I know you haven't been online in a while, but holy mother of god, I hope you get to see this comment. I love this, and it's a shame it hasn't gotten to the Ed Desk yet. I'm proudly backing this, and I hope this will take a better turn on authonomy at some point, because it really deserves more attention than this.

Marco Cota wrote 1834 days ago

I was taken in, in a very different way than usual. I realized later that I found your bo0k to be the most real book I've ever read. I see you have not checked in for 85 days. I hope you pursue this,,,I am impressed and back you. Marco

James Bodsworth wrote 1905 days ago
James Bodsworth wrote 1905 days ago

I'm very interested in the premise of this and the powerful drama of the opening chapter. I' m a particularly interested to see how you chart the process of subsequent disintegration of Lucy and then their marriage. I'm hooked. There's an unavoidable impact in this opening. James

Lainey wrote 1909 days ago

Utterly believable and well written. The story grips you from page one and does not let go. As a mother, I had empathy with Lucy and as a psychologist, I thought the portrayal of her psychosis was well researched and allowed the reader an insight into the fine line we all tread between holding it together and not! I haven't read the whole book yet but am backing it for its beautifully written prose and its grit and bravery in taking on this most delicate of topics.

best of luck

Lainey

mskea wrote 1917 days ago

Lesley,
Ch 1 - what impressed me here was the atmosphere at the end when jonathan goes into distress, the agony of that, the helplessness of the father, the inability of Lucy to accept the death, and the poignancy of her trying to feed someone else's baby. I ache for her here.
But - I found 'Mistress Pain' a real distraction and wanted to skim over the bits where she appears. I know its meant to be about the mental instability, but I felt this would be more powerful without her - if Lucy's arguments were within her own mind and not attributed to a personification of her imagination (my opinion only of course).
Ch2 At the beginning I didn't relate to Alex - I found him too philosophical / analtical for me to engage with him. '' A dream of the only true immortality a man can have.' This turned me right off. However in the rest of the chapter I am sucked in and begin to believe in him as a person, and by the end I am aching for him too.
This had become a very powerful mss and one which I care about -
Going onto my WL,

Margaret (Munro's Choice)

paul house wrote 1917 days ago

This was horrible. It brought back a lot of memories, although both my daughters survived. It made me relive those moments of birth vividly - and I was only the man in attendance. Very well written and well worth a place on my shelf.

ju-ju wrote 1918 days ago

Dear Lesley, this genuinely made me burst into tears at the end, with a mixture of sadness and relief that hope survives (my novel deals with an equally bleak story, and i too hope that the predominant emotion the reader is left with is belief in the human will to find peace). i can see why you have contained this story in a novella - though i think it could be stretched to a novel (i.e. developing further Cassie and showing Lucy's decline) - that would mean widening your scope and then it would not what makes it work so well - fragile, almost translucent - a hidden catastprohe - played out, i am sure many, many times behind the net curtains and closed doors of every nation. Lucy's ending was sadly inevitable, but the character that comes alive most for me is Alex, i completely empathised with him, he is flawed, but we all are, and i am glad you chose this ending, at least Alex has a chance at life.

Thank you so much for putting the whole thing up here - i would most certainly read more of your work, so let me know if you post anymore. Have you tried to place this agents or publishers yet? i am wondering what the response might be. I can reassure you that i would buy this and recommend it - but is the mindset, too rigid on full length books?

I have taken you off my shelf for now - so many i want to promote - but it will go back on a rotating basis. good luck with all your writing. You have a fan.

ceris wrote 1919 days ago

That brought back so many memories. My Grandson's heart dipped with every contraction and the result was Cerebal Palsy. I have a true story, A Boy Called George, If you fancy reading it (although I don't like begging for a reciprocal) I'm not sure if enjoyable is the right word for Dead Babies. Good is the word I would use for the writing itself. Although I do feel that there is room for improvement. I think some subtle changes would improve it no end.

Lucy, are you alright now….
This for me is too in your face. Personally, I’d have had the midwife thumbing through the notes, glancing across and then mentioning depression rather than suicide and then if you want the reader to know.


'No!' blah blah blah. Thankful that she hadn’t mentioned the suicide attempt.
I’m not sure that it is her place to ask, she is a midwife not a psychiatrist.

On the whole an interesting story. I am going to shelve it for a short while.




Dear Sue

Thanks for taking the time to comment, and I appreciate what you've said. Feedback's so valuable. As someone who was a midwife, we would ask questions like the suicide one, to report back to a doctor as necessary. Midwives are practitioners in their own right, and doctors quite often aren't involved in the birth process unless they feel it's necessary. At least, that's the case in the UK.

No - enjoyable is not the word for this particular piece of work, and it's not supposed to be :-)

What kinds of changes - other than those you mentioned - might you make to improve the writing? I want this to be the best it can be.

Thanks again. I shall check out your work soon.

best wishes

Lesley

ceris wrote 1919 days ago

the disintegration of Lucy's mind is so masterfully achieved in this, particular by your use of Mistress Pain and Verity (who i picture as a small, birdlike woman, with thin lips, shrivelled by failure that is always someone elses fault). Like the MC in The Sacrifical Man by Ruth Dugdall - (check her out, brilliant writer on here), Lucy is not a likeable character due to her absorbing self pity (which i see as manifestations of her psychosis) and may turn some readers off - but as far as i can see, your job is not to make her likeable, but make her real (though publishers always seem to be looking for a MC that the reader can root for.) I haven't suffered a miscarriage, but that did not stop me empathising deeply with Lucy's and Alex's pain. I have only read the first three chapters, but am hooked and will be back to read more. Your writing is visceral and tangible, i could see what Lucy sees, understand both her rational and irrational thought processes - knowing that Johnathon is dead, but not accepting that on a 'real' level. I want to find out what happens next, i want to wish for a happy ending, though i have a feeling i am wishing for the impossible. I hope there is a way out for them both, but either way, i already care about these characters, and the utter devastation they face. This is stunning writing that could so easily be overly sentimental, but your use of the imagery of Lucy's mind and its descent to 'safety', which insanity often is - gives this a literary edge that lifts it from 'misery memoir' type fare, to a deeply moving portrait of a marriage torn apart by grief, failure and guilt. You have set yourself a difficult task however, novella's are hard to sell to publishers and an MC that is insane and in chapter 3 masturbates with an hallucination is going to be hard to classify. I love it, and hope (so far) you don't change a thing. It is going on my shelf. When i am next on the forums i'll give it a shout too. Hope it rises. And finally, one teeny point, in Alex's chapter i felt the writing was slightly less polished - i think it was tenses - noticed some uses of 'was' pulled me from the flow -so maybe worth a read through again. Will return.



Dear Juju

Many thanks for your comments. Really appreciate them! I agree with you about Alex - he really was the thorn in my side re the writing, but I think improves character-wise throughout.

With regard to selling novellas - yes, that's difficult! And this one is maybe more so because of its nihilistic take on a sensitive subject. I think for me - if I can sell it, great, but if I don't, I've produced a piece I'm quite proud of about something I really wanted to explore. And yes - Lucy wasn't meant to be likeable or someone we might root for - she was meant to be flawed and 'real', with all its attendant pains and selfishnesses. That was another reason I didn't make it sentimental - a deliberate and quite cold decision on my part.

Thanks for your really nice comments about the writing itself. I hope you enjoy the rest - although maybe 'enjoy' might not be the right word :-)

Best wishes

Lesley

ceris wrote 1919 days ago

Lesley, this is a fine story. It shows a lot of thought and insight, and it works just fine. I want to thank you for the conclusion, because I don't think I could have borne something less encouraging. I put "Dead Babies" on my shelf for the quality of your prose and also because there is some overlap in our stories (e.g., the opening birth scenes).

I welcomed the switch to Alex in ch 2, but immediately questioned whether it was right to say at that point that he has metamorphosed into a cold, troubled man. Yes of course he has been through trauma, and of course he is troubled (who wouldn't be), but you seem to be implying a permanent change. At this point in the story (this is presumably still within the first few days, right?), it may be too early to say he won't bounce back. Also, I'm confused by the statement that he now "lives behind a wall of denial." Is he in denial? Of what? He's clearly full of regrets and anger, but denial? I don't think you have explained that, at least not yet.

The psychosis you depict in ch 3 is very believable. I can recognize thought patterns from the way I've heard others talk who were over the edge.

Alex's denial is finally apparent in ch 4, when he finds it "easier to ignore Lucy's nocturnal activities" and "doesn't want to re-open the box of rotting worms." The detail and honesty of his analysis here is very impressive. By the end of this chapter, it's clear that a fair amount of time has passed since the baby's death, and so at this point the question of whether he has undergone a fundamental and lasting change is easier to entertain. Maybe all you need is more "map stops" to indicate where we are on the timeline. (When we're told in ch 5 that Jonathan is four months old, and for a long time that's the only clue as to the passage of time other than her four-week stay in the hospital. In the latter chapters, time no longer seems a problem.) The continued exploration of Alex's thinking in ch 6 is great. Perhaps it's my gender, but I find him much more interesting. Lucy and her perceptions are just too weird for me to view as anything other than a specimen.

In the final chapter, I wondered at Alex's saying he will "accept his shortcomings, his failures, instead of trying to be perfect." While he has certainly been aware of his failings all along, I never sensed that he was trying to be perfect. But again, this is a serious piece of literature, and I admire it. Thank you for sharing it here.



Hi there

Thanks so much for reading. re the ending - I had a couple of endings. One was the more hopeful ending you talk about, the other was much more nihilistic. I decided that hope was the way to go - ultmately, I think there has to be hope!

Alex's character was really difficult to portray, and he still does cause me problems! I think what I wanted to initially show was that Alex has finally had enough, and that as far as he's concerned, the marriage is over, although he still tries to believe in himself as a 'good man' - whatever that might be. If this doesn't come over, I appreciate you letting me know, and I'll continue to work on him more. I'll definitely take on what you said about the passage of time - you may have solved my problem! Thank you :-)

Thanks for the comments about the psychosis issue - I did worry about that, despite the amount of research I did. I'm glad it seems realistic. I added a certain amount of 'poetic license' and it seems it worked okay.

Once again, thanks so much for your comments. Much appreciated!

Best wishes

Lesley

ceris wrote 1919 days ago

Leslie,

I was only barely able to read through the first chapter. Not because it isn't beautifully written or heartbreakingly sad, but because I *am* Lucy. I've lived through two early miscarriages, two stillbirths and two live births in eight years. It's heart-rending and I fear I'm unable to read what you've written beyond this because I know the fallout all too well.

In any case, there aren't enough books, fiction or non, about the terrible anguish of losing someone before you've really had a chance to see them live.

I commend your bravery in tackling a topic that is pushed under the rug far too often.

Hugs,

Alice



Dear Alice

Thanks for taking the time to comment on what you read of my work. I was sad to read about your experiences. Part of the reason I wrote this was as a response to my experience as a midwife and what I've seen, partly to explore relationship breakdown from my own experience, and yes, to try to explore in a painfully 'realistic' way what might happen after an experience like a stillbirth. I'm sorry if reading the piece caused you pain, but equally, as a wrtier, I'm pleased it was effective and accurately portraying what some women go through.

Best wishes

Lesley

Alice Gray wrote 1920 days ago

Leslie,

I was only barely able to read through the first chapter. Not because it isn't beautifully written or heartbreakingly sad, but because I *am* Lucy. I've lived through two early miscarriages, two stillbirths and two live births in eight years. It's heart-rending and I fear I'm unable to read what you've written beyond this because I know the fallout all too well.

In any case, there aren't enough books, fiction or non, about the terrible anguish of losing someone before you've really had a chance to see them live.

I commend your bravery in tackling a topic that is pushed under the rug far too often.

Hugs,

Alice

ju-ju wrote 1921 days ago

the disintegration of Lucy's mind is so masterfully achieved in this, particular by your use of Mistress Pain and Verity (who i picture as a small, birdlike woman, with thin lips, shrivelled by failure that is always someone elses fault). Like the MC in The Sacrifical Man by Ruth Dugdall - (check her out, brilliant writer on here), Lucy is not a likeable character due to her absorbing self pity (which i see as manifestations of her psychosis) and may turn some readers off - but as far as i can see, your job is not to make her likeable, but make her real (though publishers always seem to be looking for a MC that the reader can root for.) I haven't suffered a miscarriage, but that did not stop me empathising deeply with Lucy's and Alex's pain. I have only read the first three chapters, but am hooked and will be back to read more. Your writing is visceral and tangible, i could see what Lucy sees, understand both her rational and irrational thought processes - knowing that Johnathon is dead, but not accepting that on a 'real' level. I want to find out what happens next, i want to wish for a happy ending, though i have a feeling i am wishing for the impossible. I hope there is a way out for them both, but either way, i already care about these characters, and the utter devastation they face. This is stunning writing that could so easily be overly sentimental, but your use of the imagery of Lucy's mind and its descent to 'safety', which insanity often is - gives this a literary edge that lifts it from 'misery memoir' type fare, to a deeply moving portrait of a marriage torn apart by grief, failure and guilt. You have set yourself a difficult task however, novella's are hard to sell to publishers and an MC that is insane and in chapter 3 masturbates with an hallucination is going to be hard to classify. I love it, and hope (so far) you don't change a thing. It is going on my shelf. When i am next on the forums i'll give it a shout too. Hope it rises. And finally, one teeny point, in Alex's chapter i felt the writing was slightly less polished - i think it was tenses - noticed some uses of 'was' pulled me from the flow -so maybe worth a read through again. Will return.

LittleDevil wrote 1921 days ago

That brought back so many memories. My Grandson's heart dipped with every contraction and the result was Cerebal Palsy. I have a true story, A Boy Called George, If you fancy reading it (although I don't like begging for a reciprocal) I'm not sure if enjoyable is the right word for Dead Babies. Good is the word I would use for the writing itself. Although I do feel that there is room for improvement. I think some subtle changes would improve it no end.

Lucy, are you alright now….
This for me is too in your face. Personally, I’d have had the midwife thumbing through the notes, glancing across and then mentioning depression rather than suicide and then if you want the reader to know.


'No!' blah blah blah. Thankful that she hadn’t mentioned the suicide attempt.
I’m not sure that it is her place to ask, she is a midwife not a psychiatrist.

On the whole an interesting story. I am going to shelve it for a short while.


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