'An Exact Replica of a Figment of my Imagination' by Elizabeth McCracken. I read about this book years ago and I knew there was a copy sitting on the shelf in Chorlton library, and really I was just waiting for the time to read it. I like it when I read something and I know I will go out and look for another book by the same author: this was one of those times.
This book is a memoir about the loss of a baby, and then the birth of a baby. But it is more than that; it is about how you become a parent, and how even if your baby dies you are still a parent. I read it pretty much in one day at Hesfes and just became totally absorbed in it. It is what makes it such a wonderful and poignant read, that you have both: you anticipate both the happiness and the sadness simultaneously, somehow she manages to get across their anticipation and sense of excitement throughout her pregnancy and also punctuate it with the process of grieving. I think it would have been a different kind of story if she had not conceived again almost immediately and had her son Gus almost exactly a year after losing Pudding. It is a quiet chatty little book, just letting you in to the intimacies of their lives, private jokes and conversations, what they ate and what they did and where they went, all against the backdrop of waiting to become a family. It is not chronological; time hops back and forth within the story, gradually filling in the details, both pregnancies run alongside each other in sharp contrast. What I loved most about it, which I assume most parents do, we certainly did, is how they give their 'sprog' a life and personality while he is growing. Being pregnant is a process of imagination as much as biological growth. You create in your mind the child that your baby might become, the life you might have. This is not some kind of fixed deterministic controlling thing, where you want them to be a certain way, but an imagining of possibilities. You talk to them, and they talk back. Your baby is a real person long before they put in an appearance. And so when a baby dies, you have not lost some anonymous stranger but a person who has already become integral to your life.
"He was a person. I missed him like a person. Seeing babies on the street did not stab me with pain the way I know they stab some grieving women, those who have lost children or simply desperately want to have them. For me, other babies were other babies. They weren't who I was missing." (p.41)
"But a baby. Who's to say? Babies are born needing everything. They're a state of emergency. That's what they're for. Dead, there's nothing we can do for them, and we don't know what they'd want, we can't even guess. I can pretend that I knew Pudding. No, I did know him, not with my brain but with my body, and yet I know nothing about him, not even the simplest thing: I have no idea what he'd want. And so in my grief I understand that mourning is a kind of ventriloquism; we put words into the mouths of our bereavers, but of course it's all entirely about us, our wants, our needs, the dead are satisfied, we are greedy, greedy, greedy, unseemly, self-obsessed. If your child did not survive birth, everyone can see that clearly. I want. I need. Not him, no pretending." (p.137-8)
And so the life she thought that she would have does not come about, but another one does. She starts the book with an anecdote about a woman at a book signing who tells her she should write about the death of a baby, and eventually and unintentionally she has done. You can't help but feel that part of what gets her though the process is being able to write about it. That although the life was a figment of her imagination, the baby was not, he was real, and the acknowledgement of his existence makes him real to others around her and becomes part of her grieving. I think the story has something to say even to people who are not parents, because in all sorts of ways we imagine possible future lives for ourselves, and most of them are just figments, and what she concludes is that in spite of everything we can only live in the real life we have.
"Perhaps it goes without saying that I believe in the geographic cure. Of course you can't out-travel sadness. You will find it has smuggled itself along in your suitcase. It coats the camera lens, it flavours the local cuisine. In that different sunlight, it stand out, awkward, yours, honking in the brash vowels of your native tongue in otherwise quiet restaurants. You may even feel proud of its stubbornness as it follows you up bell towers and monuments, as it pants in your ear while you take in the view. I travel not to get away from my troubles but to see how they look in front of famous buildings or on deserted beaches. I take them for walks. Sometimes I get them drunk. Back at home we generally understand each other better." (p.132)