Angela Savage may be best known for her Jayne Keeney PI novels, or for her role as the Director of Writer’s Victoria, but in Mother of Pearl, she’s serving something different. Celebrating Savage’s love of Thai culture and customs, Mother of Pearl is a sensitive exploration of the issue of overseas surrogacy, told from multiple points of view, through the story of two sisters and a young Thai woman who becomes the surrogate for one of them.
The main character of the novel, Anna, has worked with NGOs in Asian countries like Thailand, Cambodia and Laos. When her younger sister Meg and husband Nate decide that overseas surrogacy may be the only way they will ever have a baby, Anna has no choice but to agree. But she has a few conditions. She’s seen first hand the toll that Western tourism can have on poor people in South East Asian countries who are exploited by greedy middle men. But she’s also seen first hand the anguish that infertility has caused her sister. As Anna tries to mediate between her own moral code and her sister’s determination to get her baby, relationships are tested and secrets threaten to come out.
Mother of Pearl is a readable, intelligent and gentle novel about surrogacy and about the intersection between two very different cultures. It is clear from the outside that Angela Savage knows Thailand and its cultural differences from Australia quite well. In using the character of Anna to interpret Thailand for Meg and Nate, she also allows her to interpret this world for a reader who may have varying levels of knowledge about it. Though at times it would have been possible for Anna to stray into the stereotype of a white saviour, Savage’s respect for the culture and deep emotional intelligence shine through, making this novel a highly sensitive one.
At times, the story suffered a little bit from being imbued with too many causes and too many secrets. While surrogacy and the exploitation of the young surrogates was the main issue at play, Savage attempted to weave in discussion of the Black Saturday bushfires (which did eventually make sense), the HIV epidemic and concerns about the sex trade. She hinted at the Baby Gammy story, but did not wholly include reference to this real life event, which I think was a wise move, as the book managed to make its point without lecturing or prescribing.
By showing the three points of view — that of Anna, that of her sister Meg, the Intended Parent and that of Mod, the Thai surrogate– the novel deftly showcased three different points of view without definitively setting one above the other, and I think the uncertain future for all three characters worked will in the novel’s favour. After all, it is not the job of the novel to answer life’s big questions but rather to explore the human nature that goes into creating them.
But the big secrets that influenced Anna’s actions in the novel did not serve the novel as well as they could have, with both of them seeming to be revealed too little (the first) and too late (the second). Without giving away spoilers, something that was supposed to provide context to Anna’s actions throughout the novel might have worked better if the reader had known about it from early on, providing dramatic irony and deepening the tensions between the two sisters. It also may have helped Anna to be a more sympathetic character, as at times she had a tendency to be too tough and practical to really let the reader in.
This was a sensitive and enjoyable novel about a difficult subject, and showcased Savage’s emotional intelligence as a writer and a researcher. I would definitely read future work from this writer.
THREE AND A HALF STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
Mother of Pearl is available now via Transit Lounge Publishing.