Apart from our inevitable death, the only thing which unites all humans is that we began our existence inside someone else. That paradoxical fact is crucial to Chitra Ramaswamy’s intelligent and intimate book, which is structured as a series of nine essays, one for each month of her pregnancy. Taken together they add up to something more.
Expecting is part memoir, part travelogue, part nature writing, part popular science, part literary criticism, part feminist critique and part investigation. It is a confession, but it is also about confusion: why, given the universality of having been born, does our culture pay so little attention to pregnancy? Ranging from Leo Tolstoy to Sylvia Plath, Gustave Courbet to Pedro Almodovar, and from the Maldives to the Western Isles, it is striking in its ability to concentrate specifically on pregnancy, rather than parenthood. It must be the first book about pregnancy that does not mention folic acid once.
Using historical examples, Ramaswamy also looks at another curiosity. Pregnancy is now medicalised – it is a condition – but for most of human history, women would have given birth at home. That is what she elected to do, and the final pages on what can go wrong are actually nail-biting. Even at this crisis and closure there is a steely-eyed determination to notice. She realises, at one point, she has never been in an ambulance before. In an earlier section, reflecting on things happening to her family and extended family while she was pregnant, there is a sustained elaboration on another thing that grows within us and changes us irreversibly: cancer.
The point of literature is that we can understand what we can never experience. To be blunt, I am a straight, white, single, childless man. Ramaswamy is none of these. And yet, I found this poetic and polemical book moving, enlightening and fascinating. It would be a terrible pity if half the population chose not to read it.