Surrogacy, the theme of Let Her Go, Dawn Barker’s new novel, is highly topical in Australia.
Surrogacy has been much in the news in Australia over the last month. A story broke with the shocking revelation that disabled baby boy had been left in Thailand with his surrogate mother. The commissioning couple, who had entered into a commercial arrangement with the Thai woman, brought the baby’s twin sister with them when they returned to Western Australia. As if that wasn’t bad enough, the commissioning father was later revealed as a convicted paedophile.
Let Her Go, Dawn Barker’s second novel, is a fast-paced read about altruistic, rather than commercial, surrogacy. Before 2009, when the Surrogacy Act 2008 became law, even altruistic surrogacy was illegal in Western Australia.
This is the second large, family-related theme that psychiatrist and author Dawn Barker has explored in a short time. In Fractured, her first novel she delved into the traumatic impact on a family of post-natal depression.
When half-sisters Zoe and Nadia and their husbands, Lachlan and Eddie, enter into a surrogacy arrangement because of Zoe’s inability to carry her own child, little do any of them realise the emotional upheaval they will confront as a result of their meticulously laid plans. No one could predict the problems that their daughter, Louise, will face.
For the reader, also, outcomes are unpredictable. The carefully controlled plot in this psychological thriller moves members of the family from one crisis to the next. The story reveals the impact on each of the characters of their initial decision, made in good faith, to enter into a surrogacy arrangement.
Dawn Barker raises many questions.. She leaves her reader hanging, anxious to discover how each dilemma will unravel and what will be the final outcome in this gripping family drama.
Ranging over almost twenty years, the novel is written in a series of forward and back flashes. This structure allows the mystery at the heart of the story to unfold and deepen. It also enhances the development of the characters as the author reveals the impact of the surrogacy decision on each of them.
At different times a reader might make the judgement that one or other is behaving poorly. But, because of the skill of the writing, we are left with the feeling that there are no goodies or baddies in this story. Following the initial decision, everyone simply responds to subsequent events in the only way they feel able. These are thoroughly believable, flawed characters, each with saving graces that allow the reader to empathise with them.
Dawn Barker has an amazing ear for dialogue. Her characters’ speech helps to create them in all their human frailty and strength. Much of the dialogue in Let Her Go made me squirm, laugh and cry, as I recognised myself and people I know in their often heated conversations.
The story is set around Perth and Fremantle, with scenes that are quintessentially Western Australian. Indeed, Dawn Barker uses the settings almost as an additional character. They frequently reflect the inner state of a character. For example, when Zoe retreats alone with the baby to Rottnest Island, her desolation is echoed by a description of the terrain in which she finds herself:
‘She trudged along the sandy paths, avoiding quokka droppings and swooping gulls, heading away from the beach towards the interior of the island.’
Let Her Go is a thoroughly enjoyable novel, especially recommended for anyone with an interest in complex family relationships or surrogacy. With its author-written, extensive discussion notes it is a great choice for reading groups and book clubs.
Dawn Barker, Let Her Go. (Hachette: Sydney, 2014).
This review is part of my commitment to the Australian Women Writers Challenge, 2014