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.

Circle of Stones

On her way across the green in the middle of her estate, Julie stopped and looked around her. She was due to leave for Cork with her mother in a few minutes and she wasn’t supposed to be outside. She gave up the pretence of walking somewhere purposefully. There were some children out playing, doing stunts on their bikes with an improvised ramp. They paid no attention to her. Julie knew every family in all the houses in this part of Chestnut Glen. She had sneaked out here because she wanted to say goodbye to something – she wasn’t sure what. All the kids her age were either still in bed or off doing their Saturday jobs.

This is it, she thought. I’ve let them take over and this is where it’s brought me. She sat down heavily on one of the small boulders, dropped there in a rough circle not by a glacier but by the developer of the virgin estate back in the 1960s.

Cork. The only person she knew there, apart from her mother’s awful cousin, was her first love from Irish College three summers ago. What sweet letters Marty used to write. Those few weeks away on the west coast had been exotic, enchanted. Not only the language was different – the air, the sky, the rain. Marty was staying with a neighbouring family. They used to walk home from the dances together, the boys from his house, the girls from hers. She remembered his pale face in the grey light of dusk. For a moment, she let her imagination take off. Dreaming up rescue scenarios had become her favourite pastime.

Somehow she would bump into him in Cork, and he would be filled with concern for her plight, realise he still loved her and decide to help her out. Marty would have matured beyond his years, he would have a proper job and his own place to live and they would set up family together. No, she didn’t like the last bit. The baby didn’t fit well into that picture.

Better if she stole some money from her mother’s cousin and escaped. She could rent a caravan somewhere by the sea in Wexford. There she would lay low and wait to turn eighteen, as long as the baby didn’t come first. She would turn up at the local hospital, a mysterious case. The staff would be intrigued. A nurse would take pity on her, offer her a room. They would become friends – and the baby, the baby. Julie felt the muscles across her swollen stomach tighten. It’s not looking good baba, she whispered.

If I had a giant camera, I would zoom out, Julie thought. First you would see this circle of stones in a field surrounded by houses, then up and up, the surrounding suburbs, the coastline, the hinterland of farms. Then Ireland surrounded by clouds and swirling blue sea, farther and farther away until the world looked quiet and harmless and nothing mattered anymore.

It was time. Julie walked slowly back towards the house. Her bag was packed, the adoption agency papers inside it. She would remember that walk; find echoes of it throughout her life. Each step leading her away from something open towards something closed. She recognised it when she walked down the aisle ten years later and the bitterly cold day when she walked into the doctor’s office to get her biopsy results. The moments when you realised the world was turning and you just had to walk with it.