Falling in love with fictional babies

Image courtesy of tuelekza at FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Image courtesy of tuelekza at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

The baby was astonishing. He had little cloth ears, floppy as cats. The warmth of his round stomach could heat the world. His head smelled like a sacred flower. And his fists held mysterious, tiny balls of fluff from which he could not bear to be parted.

Meet baby Raqib, the adorable son of Nazneen in Brick Lane by Monica Ali. I read and loved this book when it came out in 2003 and particularly remember being enchanted by this baby. It seemed that he was the first convincing baby character I had come across in a novel.

Babies are given birth to, carried around, fed, loved and admired in books, but it’s rare for a baby’s personality to emerge on the page. And babies are brimming with personality. They’re fun to be around, for their expressions and gestures alone. Back to Raqib.

Nazneen curled around him on the bed. He raised an arm, which reached only halfway up his head. He put it back down. The futility of this exercise appeared to anger him.

In the same scene, Nazneen’s husband Chanu is droning on about setting up a business. He asks: “What can you do without capital?”

Raqib tried to lift his head from Nazneen’s shoulder as if he knew the answer to this difficult question. Overcome with his burden of knowledge, he collapsed instantly into sleep. Squinting down, Nazneen looked at his month-old nose, the sumptuous curve of his cheek, his tight-shut, age-old eyes.

There is more of Raqib and every appearance he makes is so beautifully written you want to reach out and stroke that little cheek.

Often, the fictional baby’s role is to channel the thoughts of the parent or caregiver. Baby Jonah in The Hand That First Held Mine by Maggie O’Farrell is that kind of baby. This scene takes place with his mother Elina out in the garden.

She moves the rattle from side to side and the coloured beads ricochet around inside their clear globes. The effect on the baby is instantaneous and remarkable. His limbs stiffen, his eyes spring wide; his lips part in a perfect round O. It’s as if he’s been studying a manual on how to be a human being, with particular attention to the chapter, ‘Demonstrating Surprise’. She shakes it again and again and the baby’s limbs move like pistons, up, down, in, out. She thinks: this is what mothers do.

There’s another ‘as if’. There is a tendancy to ascribe thoughts and emotions to babies that they aren’t capable of having. Also the idea that they have some ancient knowledge – I’m sure I’ve read that more than once but can’t find any references now.

But in real life as in fiction, babies are interesting in what they reveal about the people who love them. Take baby Matt in What I Loved by Siri Hustvedt, whose parents tracked his development “with the precision and attentiveness of Enlightenment scientists”:

For a baby he seemed weirdly compassionate. One evening when Matt was about nine months old, Erica was getting him ready for bed. She was carrying him around with her and opened the refrigerator to retrieve his bottle. By accident two glass containers of mustard and jam came with it and smashed on the floor. Erica had gone back to work by then, and her exhaustion got the better of her. She looked at the broken glass and burst into tears. She stopped crying when she felt Matt’s small hand gently patting her arm in sympathy. Our son also liked to feed us – half chewed bits of banana or pureed spinach or mashed carrots. He would come at me with his sticky first and push the unsavoury contents into my mouth. We read this as a sign of his generosity.

The examples I found are all boy babies. I wonder if this is a coincidence or do we consider the archetypal baby to be a boy?

We’ve had childbirth on this blog, now babies. My next blogpost will look at new mothers or motherhood in fiction – and then I’ll leave the subject alone for a while. Promise.

Has anyone else come across any good babies in fiction? I can think of one obvious bad baby, also a boy, but I’m more interested in the sweet ones. I think it’s difficult to write a convincing baby. Nicki Chen, a fellow blogger and author, does it in her novel Tiger Tail Soup. I’ll dig that excerpt out as soon as I get my copy back.

8 thoughts on “Falling in love with fictional babies

  1. A great antidote to Hausfrau, Clare, where, as you say, the babies/ children were ignored. There must be lots of other good examples, but of course right now I can’t think of any. But I do love how adults project so much onto babies, which makes them a great fictional device.

    1. Yes, no place for Hausfrau here. Although I seem to remember she does make some insightful observations about the boys’ characters. It’s always interesting when mother characters are critical of their off-spring, seeing them in a less-than-loving light. That’s one thing that struck me in Anne Enright’s The Gathering – the way the main character (can’t remember her name) had such uncharitable thoughts about her young daughters.

  2. You surprised me by mentioning the babies in my book. I can’t remember at the moment what I said about them. I was going to say that, having had three daughters, my first impulse would be to write about girl babies. I needed boys, though, for that story.

    When I had small children, I wasn’t writing. You forget so much. Young mothers who keep a journal must have a wealth of material about babies and young children.

    1. Whatever you said, I was left with a very clear impression of the babies in the story who seemed to be real people in the household. Also the description of the seriously ill baby fighting for life was very powerful.

  3. Yes, I think you are absolutely right, Clare – very rarely do babies appear in fiction with their own personalities, as an influence in the story as it were. As I mentioned to you on Twitter, Hilary Mantel has some cracking descriptions of the new baby (Elizabeth I) in Wolf Hall, but if you’re only after sweet babies, I’ll spare you the details. 😉

  4. You’re spot on with the observation that only boy babies are worth mentioning. Even our modern European societies are still male dominated, and a boy baby is still so much more worth celebrating than a girl baby. I wonder if babies don’t get high profile roles in literature because they don’t actually do much, but often they keep their mother out of the action too. One baby I did love grew into the central (child) character of Elsa Morante’s La Storia—one of the most tragically beautiful books I have ever read. If you like babies, children, and dogs and you’re looking for a good weep, read it.

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