“The Unfinished Child” by Theresa Shea: If ever there were a book club book . . .

Sometimes when discussing books either in writing or at book clubs I am reminded of some seminars in university in which we students shared our writing with each other and then were expected to sit about critically discussing the bits of paper.  Preparation for disertation defences, no doubt. But professors were constantly and obviously annoyed and frustrated by our timidity: “There’s a typo on page 4 . . .”, etc.  While there is at least one typo in The Unfinished Child by Theresa Shea, I have left University far enough behind that I will happily ignore it and move to more substantive issues (few) and praises (many).  But I must be careful to avoid spoilers, as the narrative is quite clever and enthralling, with unexpected and expected meetings.

I’m tempted to suggest that in a nutshell The Unfinished Child is about Motherhood, but, that description is at once too wide and too narrow, and wide and narrow on a few different axes.  The novel specifically confronts motherhood of a child with Down Syndrome, but, in fact, very little time is spent depicting motherhood of such a child beyond pregnancy and birth. There are scenes of Marie and her two “normal” daughters, but the prospect of being a mother (or father) to a growing, developing child with Down’s Syndrome is left to the imagining of the characters and to our own imaginings. The Unfinished Child also touches on other relationships of family and friendship, but motherhood and parenthood in general are at the centre of the discussion — Discussion. It is this discussion that I think is the heart of The Unfinished Child‘s power.

The Unfinished Child is, to my mind, a “discussion novel” like some of my favourite novels of H.G. Wells, an author sadly remembered most for his ripping youthful science fiction novels and his turgid The Shape of Things to Come.  I firmly believe that if people today would read Wells’ late novelettes and non-fiction of disappointment and tethers’ ends the future would look brighter. And if they read discussion novels, novels which like Well’s The Passionate Friends or Ann Veronica, or, yes, Shea’s The Unfinished Child, some very deep and still ignored societal issues would go through a crowd-sourced discussion which might bring a more liveable future of well-examined lives.

Parenthood and Motherhood, along with Marriage (the title of another of Wells’ discussion novels) and Friendship are all near the heart of The Unfinished Child‘s discussion.  But the very heart of the novel is precisely the questions, problems, doubts, pain and, indeed, ignorance surrounding being mother to a child with Down Syndrome, or for that matter, a child with any disability, physical or intellectual.

The title of Shea’s book refers to the antiquated medical idea that a child with Down Syndrome is, for some reason, developmentally arrested at an unfinished state, an understanding shown to be clearly inaccurate by events — one in particular — in The Unfinished Child: Carolyn, the young girl with Down Syndrome, is obviously not arrested in her physical development.

Disclosure 1

As a parent of a now young-adult with both physical and intellectual disabilities, I feared that The Unfinished Child would be a preachy lecture on the wonders and joys of parenting a child with Down Syndrome. (Don’t antice the book!) Over the years, I’ve gotten to know quite a number of young people with Down Syndrome and their parents.  I have seen the entire spectrum of physical, intellectual, and behavioural limitations and challenges that may come with that extra bit of chromosome.  Thankfully, The Unfinished Child is an insightfully sensitive presentation of the difficult, impossible, heart breaking and sometimes rewarding challenges of what most soon-to-be parents never allow themselves to consider.  I am so grateful that Shea left the questions asked but unanswered, the problems presented, but unsolved.  The Unfinished Child is the beginning of the discussion, not a conclusion.

Back to the book. . .

The Unfinished Child moves back and forth between two converging stories, in a way somewhat reminiscent of  The Hours by Michael Cunningham. In 1947, Margaret’s water breaks at the end of her first pregnancy.  And, in 2002, Elizabeth, who we soon find out seems to be infertile, and her friend Marie, who is remarkably fecund, meet for dinner on an Edmonton winter evening. And back and forth. We see the warehousing of the disabled in the 40’s, 50’s and 60’s (and beyond?) contrasted with the fertility — and prevention of fertility — technologies of today.  The moral challenges of modern choice contrasted with the horrific disappearances of previous generations of the disabled.

The converging plot is very cleverly constructed and the moment the reader recognizes the connection between past and present (it struck me on page 128) is startling and satisfying. Somehow the convergence is perfectly foreshadowed by the author and yet completely unanticipated by the reader, and so, feels perfectly right when the juncture comes.  On the negative side, toward the end of the book there is another juncture, a meeting, which seemed to me a touch too coincidental — of all the flower shops, in all the towns, in all the world, he walks into mine. But the dissatisfaction with that coincidence quickly fades as the pieces fit so well again.

The closest The Unfinished Child comes to the preaching I dreaded — and it’s not very close — is in the words of an aged Down Syndrome specialist, Dr. Maclean, who, troubled, comments that he wonders whether the modern prevalent choice of parents to terminate Down Syndrome fetuses is not a new eugenics. My honest response to Dr. Maclean is that, of course it is a modern eugenics, but the real ethical dilemma is, despite the eugenic horrors of the 20th Century, where the correct moral course lies between always letting the genetic dice fall where they may, no matter our technological abilities, and, on the other horn, always using our technological abilities to ensure that parenthood is as easy as possible. The Unfinished Child, in the nearly identical agonizing decisions of Margaret and Marie, points out the dark attractiveness of making a problem disappear, and the truth that there is no easy choice.

It is here that the true honesty of Shea’s novel is highlighted: motherhood, parenthood, friendship, relationships of all kinds are hugely messy difficult beasts — why would we expect the prospect of parenting a child with a disability — or any child for that matter — to be a bed of roses, or, to use one of Shea’s most felicitous phrases, “a playground with enough swings for every child”?

In the end, Shea’s characters, Margaret, Elizabeth, Marie and all the others make their choices — with varying degrees of freedom. None of the choices are easy. None are right or wrong. None are made without regret. All are decisions we as a society need to be discussing. And never do the characters or the narrative become bogged down in the discussion: The Unfinished Child, although a discussion novel, never forgets to be a Novel and not just a discussion.

I realize I’ve said little about the actual story, but I truly feel that almost any revelation of plot details beyond the jacket blurb would spoil things. Suffice it to say, Margaret has a baby with Down Syndrome in 1947 and navigates the society of the time in the limited way allowed to her. Marie finds herself pregnant by surprise when almost forty years old and confronts the prospect of parenting a child with Down Syndrome at the beginning of the 21st Century.  And Elizabeth struggles with her own infertility in the face of overwhelming desire and external pressure for motherhood.  And, as the story progresses, the lives of the three women are shown to be intertwined through the tragic figure of Carolyn, Margaret’s daughter.  And, as so often in real life, there is no magical happy ending, only choices made.  And so often the choices made by each generation, despite changing technologies, remain the same.

The Unfinished Child is Theresa Shea’s first novel, but shows little evidence of a fresh(wo)man effort.  Despite a very few brief weak passages, the writing is solid and the characters believable and clearly drawn.  I was, perhaps perversely, annoyed by a pair of botanical errors of no real consequence that I would have hoped an editor should notice. On the whole, The Unfinished Child is a most worthwhile, enjoyable and challenging read. The vitally necessary discussion it must spur is a valuable added gift. I expect a large number of neighbourhood book clubs across the country will have unusually lively, thoughtful and at times sombre discussions in the coming year or two.

Disclosure 2

Theresa Shea has for some years been my neighbour, and, in our neighbourhood, “neighbour” very often quickly comes to mean “friend”, whatever the differences of experience, opinion, or language. So, I confess, the above discussion is about a friend’s first novel.

I do, however, feel comfortable if not in my impartiality, in at least a certain degree of compensatory hypercriticality in my approach.  When discussing The Unfinished Child with others as I read the book, I was often warned that I was being far more severely critical than normal, both in what I was reading and what I expected to come next. (“Don’t antice the book!”)  To conclude: if my hypercriticality had not been overcome by the genuine qualities of The Unfinished Child, I would have simply remained silent about the book.

The Unfinished Child is published by Brindle & Glass and will be available at the beginning of April, 2013.

Oh.  The typo is on page 128.

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One comment on ““The Unfinished Child” by Theresa Shea: If ever there were a book club book . . .

  1. […] My neighbour Theresa Shea has recently confronted us with these issues provokingly in her novel The Unfinished Child. Some four decades ago, Betty Lambert confronted us from the other end of Eugenic History in her […]

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