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BooksJune 2, 2020

A review of Fake Baby, a satire stuffed with tragedies and small kindnesses

Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images

Amy McDaid works as a neonatal intensive care nurse at Starship. Her first novel is about loss that erodes and the kindness that – eventually – comes after. 

The accumulation of daily disappointments is a tragedy in itself; a series of pleasures consistently denied, joy deferred and kindness deflected. All the things we hoped for – be they as momentous as having a child or as simple as birthday cake – can become weights on our shoulders. In Fake Baby, Amy McDaid tells the story of three Aucklanders whose lives have become overwhelmed by these daily disappointments, and captures them just on the verge of being dragged under.

The novel is gently plotted but briskly paced. It takes place over the course of nine days. The lives of our three characters intersect in a light way, in that they’re all crossing each other but not meaningfully looking at or interacting with each other.

One of these is Jaanvi, a woman grieving the loss of her baby. She steals a disarmingly lifelike fake baby from a store. Another is Lucas, a pharmacist in his 40s who makes one mistake that makes all his previous, smaller mistakes seem like profound blunders. And the third is Stephen, a mentally ill man who believes his father is a malevolent spirit about to destroy the world; the personal apocalypse turned global, or at the very least national.

McDaid is most successful at capturing the worlds of Jaanvi and Lucas. She has a near-surgical ability to pinpoint the private humiliations tangled in some of our most habitual everyday behaviours. See: Lucas’s paranoid social media scroll at the end of the day, with which he persists despite his conviction that “the internet powers knew what he was up to, they followed his searches and monitored the pages he clicked on”. Or the trap of incessantly comparing ourselves with our friends – Jaanvi harbours a near loathing for her supposed friend Ayla.

I found it more real than outright funny. That chuckle of recognition. The reader might not be familiar with these exact experiences, but even the most saintly among us will see themselves in the feeling that’s engendered.

To pick one from many examples: Jaanvi watches her husband Mark make a cup of tea. “Chamomile. Always chamomile. Such a feminine tea for a bulky man. Something about it annoyed her. The falseness of it, perhaps. Would he go into a pub and order a chamomile tea?”

Actually, I found it more sad than outright funny, in a quiet, kitchen sink, Mike Leigh sort of a way.

Author Amy McDaid (Photo: Colleen Maria Lenihan)

Jaanvi is a woman whose entire existence, body and soul, has been displaced by the loss of her baby boy, Jonathan. After she steals the baby doll, she counters the negativity others direct toward it with anger. It’s a vivid physicalisation of grief. McDaid captures the turmoil inside Jaanvi’s head perfectly. Jaanvi’s entire world has turned against her – her body, her husband, her family – and it’s a credit to McDaid that we get onside with Jaanvi’s grief rather than feel alienated by it. Nothing is as repellant as naked need, whether in person or as a reader. Lines like “little pieces of ice from her chest migrated to her eyes and sat there, doing nothing” evoke her very specific feeling of grief – she’s not just lost her child, she’s lost the life she had and the life she had hoped to have. When she lashes out, it’s like a scientific certainty; the action is grief, the reaction is every emotion that follows.

McDaid’s ability to get us onside with characters we might not necessarily like in real life – Tennessee Williams called them “people you’d probably cross the street to avoid” – serves her especially well with Lucas. Lucas is the kind of person you’d cross entire suburbs to avoid. He runs his small local pharmacy entirely by the book, is the kind of person who thinks his staff enjoys after-hours meetings and is dismayed when he realises he’s consumed low-carb beer rather than low-alcohol beer. Basically? He’s a stone-cold bummer.

Despite this, we get onboard with him. The date that opens the novel is excruciating in how palpably awkward he is – knocking over wine glasses, being triggered into thinking about his recent ex, applying DAX wax to his hair – but it also endears him to us. It’d be an unfortunate person whose existence overlaps entirely with Lucas, but it’s the details that make us empathise with him. McDaid knows the details to deploy, and exactly when to do that. Just when we’re about to cross the road, so to speak, we stay on his side.

McDaid is less successful at getting the reader onside with Stephen, a mentally ill man in his 60s who is institutionalised midway through the story, and believes the only way to save humanity from his apocalypse-causing father (long dead) is to throw himself off the Harbour Bridge. McDaid’s language is no less detailed or evocative here, but we’re often kept in the backseat to Stephen’s experience, rather than the passenger seat. Take this passage:

“Two informants stood over him. One fat, one skinny. Both dressed in the navy uniform of the lower authorities. Hands-in-pockets, nonchalant, smiley – they were like people out for a walk who had stumbled on something amusing like a dog playing with a cat. Until suddenly the cat scratches the dog. The dog bites the cat. And who is laughing then?”

Fake Baby, Amy McDaid’s debut novel (Image: Supplied)

Much of Stephen’s part of the novel goes like this – concrete detail mixed with stream-of-consciousness tangents. We see what he’s thinking, but we don’t necessarily understand why, and the tangents can overwhelm the concrete detail. It’s no doubt that this is intentional. Stephen’s mind is one where physical realities are overwhelmed by his mental realities, and it makes sense that these take the form of colourful tangents. However, it ends up being the difference between portraying an experience and conveying an experience; we see the thoughts, but we don’t understand the brain behind them. It’s vivid, but in relief to the two other characters, who we end up understanding as though they were put under an X-ray, it makes this story a colourful, but shallower, experience.

Beyond this, McDaid also makes the occasional misstep, the kind you expect from a debut novel. A late-breaking domestic argument in Jaanvi’s story comes with little build-up and leaves with less consequence; it matters little to Jaanvi’s arc and even less to the story, and feels like an obligatory escalation of plot. Moments where the delineations of voice aren’t especially clear are peppered through as well. Usually it’s very clear whose story we’re in from the ways that Jaanvi, Lucas, and especially Stephen, observe the world, and McDaid textures these with their language, but more than a few times we feel the writer’s lens rather than the characters’ – I don’t believe for a second that one person in their 40s, let alone two, would refer to weed as “the marijuana”. These moments don’t jar enough to take the reader entirely out of the story, it’s more that they’re rough breaks in an otherwise smooth series of waves.

It’s the strength of the Jaanvi and Lucas plots that hold Fake Baby up, though. Through honing in on the details of these characters, she finds a beautiful profundity in these comparatively small, personal tragedies. McDaid writes of the “unloved life, of which one can die”, and all three characters have had their unloved lives. By the end of Fake Baby, she’s also shown us, with delicate detail and real generosity, the truth that even a small kindness, a silent memorandum of care and understanding, can lift someone up above the surface, even for just one more day. It’s those daily kindnesses that build up to a life loved, and finally, a life lived.

Fake Baby by Amy McDaid (Penguin, $36) is available from Unity Books. 

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