The Growing Season by Helen Sedgwick review – if pregnancy were shared between the sexes … | Books

The most obvious sign that The Growing Season takes place in an alternate reality is the pouches. In our world, reproductive technology has remained stubbornly reliant on female bodies to carry foetuses to term. In Helen Sedgwick’s speculative fiction, all that changed sometime in the 1970s, when pioneering Holly Bhattacharya and her husband Will became parents to the first child born from a prosthetic womb – the pouch.

By the 2016 present of the novel, the pouch is ubiquitous, promoted and administered by a company called FullLife. In her plush dynastic home, Holly, now 76, awaits the pouch-assisted birth of her first great-grandchild. Meanwhile in a run-down office, the last reserve of anti-pouch activism surrenders, as middle-aged Eva, who inherited the cause from her mother Avigail, shuts up shop for good. FullLife has won: the pouch is what people want.

But any reader who knows their sci-fi will also know that, from RoboCop’s OmniCorp to Oryx and Crake’s OrganInc, you can never trust a business with an intercap. Something, we learn, is wrong with the pouches. A tragedy will force Eva and Holly together to investigate their inheritances and their family trees – fittingly enough for a book about genetics – as we move assuredly between flashbacks that reveal the FullLife story and present-day plotting.

The two women must find the mysterious Frieda, the brilliant scientist who developed the pouches and worked with Holly to put them into practice, before cutting all ties with FullLife and vanishing. Significantly, Sedgwick makes Frieda a protege of Rosalind Franklin, the “dark lady of DNA” whose groundbreaking research was appropriated uncredited by Watson and Crick. For Frieda in the 1950s, it’s obvious that women’s subordination happened because of the asymmetries of human reproduction. The pouch is intended to do away with all that.

As a young woman frustrated by her parents’ sexist expectations,…

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