Angela Chadwick’s debut novel XX starts with a day-after-tomorrow (or possibly even day-after-today) premise: a group of scientists in the UK has found a way to create viable embryos from two female donors. Following successful animal trials, ovum-to-ovum (or ‘o-o’) fertilisation is now going to be offered to humans in a limited trial. Because of the way this technique works, the children of any such process will always have two X genes (one from each parent) and hence can only be female. This sets the scene for a book that is both speculative but also intensely topical, exploring gender, politics, science and the media through what becomes an intensely personal journey.
Juliet, the narrator and protagonist, is in a long-term relationship with Rosie. After many years of talking about it she has tamped down her doubts and agreed that they should have a baby. Before they can decide on a sperm donor, the o-o trial is announced and the pair apply, excited to be part of this breakthrough and assuming that the achievement will be celebrated:
We’re here to make babies without men. This is Dolly the sheep territory – a whole new frontier – and Rosie and I are lucky enough to be part of it.
They are accepted into the program and Rosie becomes pregnant, but someone leaks that news to the press and their whole world is turned upside down.
Juliet herself is a journalist for a local newspaper, so she thinks that she knows how to react when the story breaks. But she doesn’t. Almost immediately the pair becomes tabloid fodder and the target of all of those who see the experiment as a threat to men. The experiment is complex and hard to explain simply, so is sold as dangerous and the two are portrayed as freaks because, as Juliet herself observes: ‘Freakish sells papers.’ Soon there are paparazzi outside their front door, constant hounding by the media for their exclusive story, and of course torrents of abuse on social media:
Even this early in the morning my timeline is filled with eccentrics from across the globe: some are content to call me an ugly dyke; others place me at the centre of a lesbian plot to eliminate men from the human race. But there’s worse … This day was always coming. Part of me has known it all along, and yet I was able to sideline the knowledge, to let joy at the scientific breakthrough suffocate my rationality.
Juliet’s plight is amplified by the pressure being put on her by her own editor, who believes he has the right to her story. When she refuses, he deliberately puts her in the line of fire, assigning her to cover Richard Prior, a populist politician who is using the issue to boost his own profile.
Through this lens Chadwick deeply explores the role of the media in communicating and misrepresenting science, and the way the media is co-opted by politicians to promote social agendas. To this end, she could be examining a range of issues from the recent gay marriage debate in Australia to the treatment of climate change and climate scientists. For example, this reflection on the politician who misuses or makes up data to support his claims:
Gary rolls his shoulders, cracks his neck. ‘I only have time for a quick scan of the papers. And [Prior] always seems to know what he is talking about.’
Seems to know what he is talking about. I guess that, for most people, this really is enough. But how has it come to be this way? Can it really be that the charisma of the speaker is what wins the argument? … And people only ever seek out blogs that mirror their own points of view. On the surface it all seems so futile.
Another aspect of this that Chadwick does not ignore is the feeling in some quarters that because issues such as gay marriage have wide support, all of society is progressing and becoming more tolerant. Juliet and Rosie are hounded out of their house and when their new house is revealed, their neighbour turns on them. At the same time, despite her colleagues trying to shield her, Juliet keeps being sent to events featuring Prior. As a result, she is constantly coming up against the ugly side of the debate:
‘Rug-muncher,’ shouts the boy … His voice still hasn’t broken, but he has one of those hard faces. A feral child. The men laugh even louder.
We’ve been conditioned to believe that things are getting better. Gay marriage. Ovum-to-ovum fertilisation. I look into the boy’s eyes – there’s no hesitation there. He must be only about ten, yet the views of his parents, of his friends’ parents, are already entrenched.
Within all of this, Chadwick also manages to tell a deeply personal story. Juliet’s mother died when she was young and she has been raised by her father in a low-income area of town. She has always felt a little ashamed of this with the more urbane and wealthy Rosie. When the pregnancy happens and the two families become more enmeshed, Juliet feels this disparity even more. And right through the pregnancy, Juliet fights, and occasionally gives in to, deep feelings of inadequacy – that she does not really want a child, that she will be a terrible parent, that it has all been a mistake. A late twist in the tale ramps this pressure up further. At some points this makes Juliet a hard character to like, but they are feelings that are honestly dealt with and, more than the pressure from work or the media, really inform Juliet’s relationship, her reactions and her choices.
Angela Chadwick’s debut uses a speculative idea to explore a number of current hot-button topics. But within this frame she also manages to craft a compelling personal story of parenthood and the very real pressures that couples experience. It is always clear that outside all the politics and the media storm and the social pressures, there are human lives at the centre of this story. And it is in its capacity to connect readers to these characters and their plight that makes XX a page-turner.
This review first appeared in Newtown Review of Books.