Responding to extant crises – climate breakdown, inequality, violence and Covid-19 – Nada Holland’s Motherborn muses on the interconnectedness of all beings and things, offering a captivating, feminist reimagining of evolutionary algorithms and their potential to unite, nurture and sustain. In February 2021, this novel became the first publication of the revolutionary new publishing imprint, Lendal Press. MEDUSA’s copy was a kind gift.
Last year, the pandemic put an abrupt end to my normally voracious appetite for cultural commentary. Although I’m undoubtedly far from alone in that, spotting Contagion on Netflix’s Trending list and hearing about a resurgence in popularity of Camus’ The Plague were insights into the mass-psyche I really could have done without. What I sought from writing was escapism and distance – not fictionalised escalations or insensitive op-eds on the joys of an unprecedented ‘slower pace of life.’ If any of us ever have to read the hideously inaccurate metaphor of the virus as ‘a great leveller’ again, it’ll be much, much too soon.
Needless to say, I approached Nada Holland’s Motherborn – a novel that unflinchingly grapples with the emergence and devastation of Covid – with much apprehension. But having read and reread this contrapuntal tale, I’m so thankful I took the leap. Crucially, Holland decidedly refrains from sensationalising the pandemic, instead evoking its brutal reality with acerbic affirmations of its severe violence and power. It most often appears in the form of an ominously thumping bass line: offsetting the dramatic irony of the reader’s awareness of its developments over a year on – ‘Day 41, and much of China is down with the flu, the rest of the world stockpiling useless stuff…’ with the reassuring intricacies of logic gates and computational biology – expressed as ‘a rarefied little shelter of mathematical tranquility and peace’ – that are battling its propagation.
In any case, as the novel’s central concern is our entangled, immutably interconnected existence, it would be amiss to write about the inextricable constellations of our universe and not to broach the virus that has imposed such distance between us all. Vitally, Holland’s prose, resplendent with allusions and symbolism, conjured up the experience of marvelling at the inconceivable vastness of the sea or sky, and feeling comforted and reassuringly minuscule in comparison.
But that’s not at all to say that Motherborn merely offers straightforward stoicism. Strikingly, its most captivating aspects are the distinctiveness and bemusing eccentricity of its characters and form. Taking the spiral ᘎ as its core motif, the novel swirls a constellation of voices – both real and imagined – into an interlocking, coiling narrative. Uncontained by space and time, the fiercely intelligent protagonist, Chinna de Kock, guides us through the immediate present, back to the emergence of the universe and into the hyper-dimensional realm of evolutionary algorithms. Her namesake is the Hindu goddess, Chhinnamasta, an untamed embodiment of polarities – destruction and life, impermanence and immortality – whose mythology centres on her maternal self-sacrifice and capacity to protect and strengthen; and it’s this motherly propensity to nurture and fortify that Chinna, a computational biologist researching fungal networks, ultimately manifests.
Through her eyes, we marvel at two real-life figures with whom she is thoroughly enthralled – her beloved tutor, mycologist Merlin Sheldrake, and Jill Purce, a voice teacher, therapist and spiral-specialist who just so happens to be Merlin’s mother. These alternating perspectives are demarcated by motivic, monochrome illustrations that function as enjambement rather than caesura, serving to emphasise the commonalities between seemingly disparate times and places. There’s an enchanting playfulness to the intertwining of real people and the texts they’ve written – a risky narrative choice that all too often can feel clunky and discordant. But in Motherborn, Holland deftly conducts a chorus of voices, entrusting the reader with a vast spectrum of both scientific and mythic allegory. Zadie Smith has remarked that writing in the 21st century means enjoying the fact that her readers can google as much or as little as they please – Holland certainly makes use of the liberating breadth, obscurity and specificity this enables. Above all else, the incorporation of Sheldrake and Purce’s faith in the vitality of the natural world serves as a much-needed solace to Chinna, with the virus evolving inside her affording a fearful, personal impetus to the reliable complexities of her research.
As we encounter Chinna for the first time in a Cambridge lab, her mother, Elektra, is fierce and furious and thousands of miles away pool-side in Bali, channeling her energy into a quest to ‘make sense of her own life, her own wayward flesh.’ On the surface, they could not be more different – while Chinna is not just fluent in the languages of mycelium, hyphae and algorithm, but composing their latest vernacular, her mother’s understanding of her career extends as far as acknowledging she ‘studies mushrooms’. Despite Chinna and Elektra often being separated, not only by oceans, but whole timelines, their bond is unrelentingly palpable. Moving through the choppy, yet elegant, prose, it is as though the years between mother and daughter gently dissipate until the lifetimes between them no longer exist. After all, as the hybridised formulation of the title intimates, at the heart of Motherborn are questions of who and how we come to be; what forms the indelible ties between parent and child.
There’s much more to say about Motherborn. There’s its luminous, musical quality. There are devastatingly visceral descriptions of the vibrancy and bustle of Indonesia brutally silenced by the pandemic. There’s a refreshing evocation of a young woman in love – infatuated with a man for his creative brilliance, rather than that all too prevalent trope of toxic unavailability. There are nourishing descriptions of the spice and colour of love-imbued, home-cooked food. There’s a potent sense of urgency to better nurture the planet and people that surround us. Motherborn is a novel of multitudes – taking us beyond viruses, borders and differences – it’s a hopeful hymn to indomitable interrelation in these times of isolation.