Angela Savage. Mother of Pearl. Melbourne: Transit Lounge, 2019. 320 pp. AU$29.99 ISBN: 9781925760354
Reviewed by Mark Azzopardi, Temple University, Japan Campus
Southeast Asia may yet become a more prominent location in Australian literature. Describing Australia’s ties with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, Simon Roughneen writes:
Australia’s 2016 census showed over 896,000 people claiming heritage from ASEAN member-states, while visitor numbers showed Australia receiving more than 1 million visitors from the region. Australians themselves made almost 3 million trips to those countries that year.
These figures provide a background to Mother of Pearl, Angela Savage’s fourth novel. The novel’s focus is international surrogacy, which Savage seeks to both humanize and complicate. One of the novel’s central characters is Meg, a thirty-nine-year-old Australian woman who desperately wants a child of her own. Meg’s internet searches take her from websites with taglines like “get your baby for sure” to a commercial IVF clinic in Bangkok. It is through the clinic that Meg’s life intersects with Mukda, or Mod, a twenty-six-year-old street vendor from Thailand’s Sisaket province, who has recently signed up as a surrogate for foreign couples. The unlikely nature of the two women’s relationship is not lost on Meg, who reflects on the medical procedure she has paid for “thousands of kilometers away” from her home in Melbourne’s inner suburbs:
She closed her eyes and thought lovingly of their embryos. Under magnification they’d looked like planets: whole worlds of possibility. She had to remind herself that technology distorted everything. A blastocyst was a tiny thing, smaller than a poppy seed. She thought of Mod, the stranger who at this very moment was taking their tiny blastocyst into her body.
Meg’s thoughts of how her biological materials appear when magnified suggest the novel’s interest in scale, how the near and far are newly capable of juxtaposition through advanced technology and market economics. Surrogacy allows Meg to achieve her dream of motherhood, and Mod moves closer to financial independence after separating from her gambling husband. For all their differences, both Meg and Mod are depicted as exercising agency in a world based on luck and contingency (a fortune-teller is consulted in the opening chapter), though the novel’s emphasis on individual choice runs the risk of effacing power dynamics undeniably at work in international surrogacy and cross-cultural interactions of all kinds. Savage is aware of this, and her deliberate refusal to typecast Mod as the third-world victim to Meg the first-world exploiter can make for uncomfortable reading.
Mother of Pearl features an enthusiastic cover blurb by Christos Tsiolkas, though there is a basic difference in how Southeast Asia appears in Tsiolkas’s and Savage’s respective fictions. “When we travel,” Isaac says in Tsiolkas’ Dead Europe, “when we are tourists, we only see that part of a city which has given itself over to the trade of travel.” Travelling outside Australia for Tsiolkas means visiting a Europe of migrant ancestors his characters find disorienting and indifferent, or, in The Slap, a flight to Bangkok for a work conference, or Bali for a resort holiday. The “trade of travel” makes Southeast Asia selectively accessible to Australia’s suburban middle class for work and leisure, with Aisha and Hector in The Slap adamant on being seen as the right kind of Australian tourist, distinct from the “cashed-up bogans with plenty of money and no bloody taste or brains” flocking to Kuta beach. In the back seat of a Bangkok taxi, sitting next to the conference delegate with whom she is about to have a one-night stand, Aisha feels a “delicious wave of euphoria”:
Aisha had not been to Asia since her children were born but she remembered the liberation that could be experienced in this chaos of dirt and heat and noise. Australia would seem sterile and antiseptic for the first few days of her return.
Yet as is often the case in Tsiolkas, the prospect of freedom is eventually rescinded. Hector half-confesses to Aisha his own infidelity, and the couple spend the last night of their holiday bickering over a memory of Hector’s brother’s violence. Tsiolkas insists that the psychology of Australian suburbia, with its submerged class tensions and interpersonal conflicts, exists for his characters regardless of their geography.
Savage is a less rebarbative writer compared to Tsiolkas, and Mother of Pearl wants to see international surrogacy as a novel, though not necessarily exploitative, extension of medical tourism. What prevents Savage’s novel from becoming sentimental is the character of Anna, Meg’s sister. Anna is a former aid worker who spent her twenties in Cambodia, Laos, and Thailand, whose knowledge of the region counterbalances Meg’s sporadic naivety.
The tourist, expatriate, aid worker, conference delegate: Australian fiction set in Southeast Asia assigns Australian characters a limited number of roles, and likewise engages with the region’s inherent diversity in highly circumscribed ways. Mother of Pearl won’t satisfy readers wanting the book to come down harder on commercial surrogacy, which remains illegal in Australia, but it does widen our understanding of one of the more unlikely aspects of human relations initiated by globalization.