Weaving together the narratives of three women, each holding unique subject positions, Mother of Pearl is a deep exploration of what it means to be a mother and sister in a complex, globalised culture. Mod is a young Thai woman who is raising her son as a single mother in conditions of poverty. Anna is an international aid worker, who has spent the past decade away from Australia, working in its neighbouring developing countries. And Meg, Anna's sister, has battled years of infertility and failed IVF treatments. Their lives are thrown together when Meg decides to pursue surrogacy through an agency in Thailand, against Anna's advice. Mod becomes her surrogate, and the three women embark on a journey of navigating the cultural differences, economic disparities and complexity of the surrogacy relationship.
Angela Savage's skill is evident in the way she balances these diverse narratives. However, the exploration of exploitation, power dynamics and privilege that she attempts to undertake through this novel feel somewhat shallow. Mod is a vessel through which the reader is encouraged to view the perspective of Thai women who choose to be surrogates. Her inescapable poverty is the driver for her decision to incubate another woman's child - but her experience of navigating the system feels simplistic, and reinforces the stereotype of the diminutive Asian woman who humbly appreciates the opportunity to lift herself out of poverty through the generosity of well-meaning white benefactors. Anna's lived experience of working in Thailand, and her commitment to protecting the rights of the surrogate employed by her sister is meant to allow an exploration of the ethical quandary posed by foreign surrogacy. But her self-righteousness makes her difficult to relate to; her character is somewhat two-dimensional. Meg's obsession with motherhood, and her often irrational and unfair reactions to her sister, her surrogate, and other women who had easier experiences of fertility, make her seem petulant at times.
Whilst each character offers an opportunity to consider the range of issues at play in their situation, the switching between narratives leaves the reader feeling as though no character is fully developed. The novel is concluded in a way that sees all strings neatly tied, and a positive resolution found without much attempt to truly unpack the ethics of surrogacy which are at the heart of the narrative. The writing is superb, and the attention to detail is testament to Savage's talent. But in attempting to dissect this complex issue through the lens of three different perspective, Savage may have relied on the quantity of insights being offered rather than their quality.
- Zoya Patel is a Canberra author.