Aussie Book Review: Let Her Go by Dawn Barker
My Rating: 5 / 5
Format: ARC ecopy courtesy of Hachette Australia
Publication Date: June 2014
Category: Modern & Contemporary
Publisher: Hachette Australia
Extent: 352 pages
From the Cover
“A powerful and haunting novel about family, motherhood and letting go.
How far would you go to have a family?
What would you hide for someone you love?
Confused and desperate, Zoe McAllister boards a ferry to Rottnest Island in the middle of winter holding a tiny baby close to her chest, terrified that her husband will find her or that her sister will call the police.
Years later, a teenage girl, Louise, is found on the island, unconscious and alone.
Flown out for urgent medical treatment, when she recovers she returns home and overhears her parents discussing her past and the choices that they've made. Their secrets, slowly revealed, will shatter more than one family and, for Louise, nothing will ever be the same again.
Let Her Go is a gripping, emotionally charged story of family, secrets and the complications of love. Part thriller, part mystery, it will stay with you long after you close the pages wondering ... What would you have done?”
Summary and Thoughts
Dawn Barker is truly becoming one of my go-to authors for stories that highlight powerful emotional issues, cultivating them into stories which will have us constantly thinking, questioning and, for some of us, in this lifetime, experiencing. In Fractured, her debut novel (my review here), Dawn addressed the subject of oft-times undiagnosed post-natal psychosis. In Let Her Go, she attempts to decipher the complexities, ethics and emotional morass of altruistic surrogacy and the effects of a decision which, sadly, affects more women than we know about.
In a recent interview held with Annabel Smith here, she had this to say about the inspiration behind Let Her Go:
“I first thought about writing Let Her Go after watching a documentary about a woman with a medical illness who used a surrogate mother to have a child. In the show, her husband was very much in the background, and when the surrogate mother attended the child’s first birthday party, it was clear that she was still very much attached to the child she had carried. There was something in the body language of both women that made me wonder how they both really felt, behind their smiles.
I then heard more and more about the advances in fertility treatment, and read stories in magazines about people buying eggs and embryos overseas, then paying women to carry the children for them.
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.”
Where does the guilt end? How hard must it be to not be able to bear a child? How far would we, as women, go to have a child? How do our men really feel? These are just some of the questions that Dawn has us asking ourselves in Let Her Go, as she narrates the lives of Zoe, Nadia and Louise.
With the Prologue setting the scene against the backdrop of Rottnest Island (affectionately known by locals as “Rotto”) just off the coast of WA, the reader is automatically cast into Gothic waters as we see a woman clutching a child to her chest with the salty spray and roiling movements of the ferry and its diesel fumes assaulting her senses, intensely adding to the inner turmoil she is experiencing.
Skip back a few weeks and, in the first chapter, we are introduced to Zoe McAllister. Having developed an auto-immune disease in her teenage years, it has ultimately destroyed her chances of successfully carrying a child to full-term, and she has begun to face the bleak reality that she will never be able to bear children. While her husband, Lachlan, assures her that he loves her, despite her inability to carry and bear the children she wishes for, she can’t help but feel that she is a failure, especially since his job on the mines takes him away from home for weeks at a time, leaving her to pick up most of the pieces after each miscarriage.
Her sister, Nadia, also married with three beautiful children of her own, has borne witness to the distress and pain that Zoe suffers after each miscarriage, known in Australia as a “gestational mother’s incentive”. After much deliberation and discussion with her husband, Eddie, she comes to a decision and intervenes, offering to be a surrogate for Zoe. But this is not a quick process and it takes a further three years before Zoe is holding her bundle of joy in her arms.
However, when the unthinkable happens and Zoe’s only chance at raising a child becomes threatened, one of these women will need to harvest the power to let the child go.
Dawn, a qualified child psychiatrist, skilfully shows us all three sides of the story by presenting us with the personal dilemmas of the two families, their direct relatives, as well as those of the child. While there is no question that Louise is absolutely and unconditionally loved by Zoe, both her and Nadia discover that it’s not as easy as just signing legal documents when it becomes painfully apparent that legalities will never be able to sever the incredible bond formed between a mother and a child at conception.
To put it mildly, I was hopelessly conflicted as Dawn delved so far into the psyches of both Zoe and Nadia that I wondered whether it would all be worth it in the end. As a mother of two beautiful children myself, Dawn presents us with such a compellingly real situation that I couldn’t help but find myself empathising with both of these women - each of them on a different journey, for the love of one child.
What would I have done in their circumstances? Well, it’s not as easy to take sides as everyone thinks because each of us has their own valid thoughts on the situation and, our own perceptions as mothers and what’s best for our children, can become jaded because of the emotional ties we have with them. It must be even more difficult though when the surrogate, like Nadia, shares an even closer relationship with the mother of the child and I could understand that the insecurities must be overwhelming.
But what of Louise? She, it seems, will find herself in the midst of an identity crisis which we can only hope will have a happy ending.
While Dawn addresses the issues of surrogacy in this profound psychological novel with both a deft and sensitive hand, she also touches on many other themes from domestic violence, chronic illness, underage drinking, marital instability and alcohol abuse to psychological problems like self-harm, anxiety and depression. As we navigate today’s world filled with many hindrances to procreation and unhappy endings (particularly in relation to the current surrogacy case here in Australia featuring baby Gammy and his twin sister), it becomes all too easy to be the judge and not the judged! Although the twins’ much publicised situation bears no similarity to that of Louise, the ethical dilemmas and long-lasting effects remain the same.
I wish to thank Hachette Australia for providing me with an ecopy of this deeply moving novel.
A Little About the Author
Dawn Barker grew up in Scotland, studied Medicine at Aberdeen University and specialised in psychiatry, moving to Australia to complete her training.
In 2010, her first novel Fractured was selected for the Hachette/Queensland Writers Centre's manuscript development programme and published by Hachette in 2013.
She lives in Perth, Western Australia, with her husband and three children.