‘The Unfinished Child’ by Theresa Shea

Book Reviews

The Unfinished Child coverReviewed by Carlyn Schellenberg

On the cover of The Unfinished Child, Theresa Shea’s debut novel, we see the lower half of a mother and her child, facing outwards to the world and frozen in time. We do not need to see the child’s face in order to know how loved she is by her mother, and such is one of the central messages of this novel.

Theresa Shea became a mother in her later years, so perhaps it’s inevitable that her exploration of motherhood includes a close examination of the technological advancements available to mothers who pose a higher risk of producing “imperfect” babies. Not often does a novel so seamlessly drive us toward a conclusion on such a sensitive and divided issue, but I welcomed the guidance. The Unfinished Child is a convincing protest against the exclusive and invasive world of genetic testing and the newfound choices it provides.

The novel offers three third-person perspectives, flipping between each narrative until they all intertwine. We begin with Margaret in 1947 in Edmonton when she goes into labour. Her baby girl is subsequently labelled a “mongoloid” and Margaret follows the firm recommendation to leave her infant at Poplar Grove, an institution that can give her daughter Carolyn the demanding treatment and attention that a child with Down syndrome requires. The maternal bond proves to be more difficult to sever: “It wasn’t long before her belly gently swelled with her second child, yet her thoughts remained on Carolyn.”

During the time this past slowly burrows up to the surface, we meet Marie and Elizabeth, lifelong friends, in the novel’s present: Edmonton in 2002. Marie is married with two beautiful daughters at the age of thirty-nine, and her accidental pregnancy is further complicated by the fact that Elizabeth is infertile and has never been able to bear children. Marie doesn’t know if she wants to have a child at her age, while Elizabeth is still undergoing the vain process of fertility treatment. Marie’s pregnancy—and resulting ultrasound and amniocentesis—brings the subject of “abnormal” babies and those with Down syndrome to the forefront. As these narratives unfold, Shea probes this underexplored topic.

While much of the novel involves the growing rift in Elizabeth and Marie’s friendship due to their resentment and jealousy towards each other, and this creates a vivid depiction of each of them, it leaves little room for each of their husbands to possess such colourful portraits. Barry, Marie’s husband, and Ron, Elizabeth’s, are mere flat characters whose principal purpose in the story is to be a target of their wife’s frustration. Barry does not care enough about the fetus; Ron doesn’t “need” a child as desperately as Elizabeth does. Although we don’t have access to Ron and Barry’s individual thoughts, we don’t desire them anyway.

The Unfinished Child echoes the path American author Kim Edwards takes in The Memory Keeper’s Daughter. In Edwards’ 2005 novel, a mother gives birth to boy-girl twins and the female child turns out to have Down syndrome. Her husband (also her doctor) tells her that the female twin died and directs his nurse to take the disabled girl to an institution. The nurse can’t bring herself to do that, so she secretly raises the baby herself. The touching similarities between both novels lie in the lifetime of regret, and the lies that people must tell their loved ones to spare them from what they believe to be future pain related to their “mentally challenged” daughter. In The Unfinished Child, Margaret tells her husband that their daughter is dead, but secretly goes to Poplar Grove to visit her.

Every possible question about the future of people with Down syndrome is given a thoughtful response in The Unfinished Child. Should “mongoloid” children be excluded from society in institutions or be with their families? Should they be integrated into public schools? Should we test for them while they are fetuses? Should they be aborted or can we benefit from them? From 1947 to 2002, the answers to those questions have greatly changed. In the novel’s 1947, the birth of an unfinished child is just a bump in the maternal road. By 2002, those bumps can be paved over and made invisible. Thus, the novel highlights the implications of the new prenatal technology. As Marie describes her ordeal with prenatal screening, it parallels Margaret’s: “‘I envy our mothers that they didn’t have to decide whether to know or not.’” The different tests and treatments for mothers and babies with Down syndrome are juxtaposed, and Shea examines the politics of what to do with these children:

Today, babies born with Down syndrome are more likely to be raised in their own loving home environment which, by contrast, helps them to be integrated into the everyday communities which will nurture and guide them as they move through all the physical changes of adolescence and into adulthood.

By the end of the novel, it is clear that Margaret made the wrong choice in letting Carolyn go. But more than sixty years later, we still don’t have all of the right answers.

As fitting with the times of 1947, Shea does not fully illustrate Carolyn as a character; their first encounter together at Poplar Grove is short. Margaret is repulsed by her daughter’s condition, which mirrors the way the doctors and the rest of the world viewed people like her. Shea describes Carolyn’s handling of a rose in a revolting way in order to put the reader in the same mindset as Margaret: “For a moment her daughter sat motionless, absorbed by the newness of the soft petals in her palm, thin as a layer of skin pulled from a sunburned shoulder. Then she lifted the flower to her mouth and began to chew.” Carolyn is primarily a symbol of the unimaginable living conditions allotted to people with Down syndrome and an object of her mother’s love and regret. She is a representation of the “other” that Margaret cannot shake, although society tries.

Shea employs an air motif in various sections of the novel to highlight the tension and power shifts that occur. For example, when Marie tells Elizabeth she is pregnant for the third time and does not appear as thrilled as Elizabeth would be if she were the one expecting, air is used to emphasize Elizabeth’s reaction: “A gust of cold air entered the house when Elizabeth slipped through the door. It swirled around Marie’s bare ankles in tight circles and then spread out low over the tiles before gusting into the four corners.”

Similes and metaphors, among other exquisite imagery, shower the pages: “They filled her uterus with an abundance of fast-swimming sperm energetically poised to penetrate the eggs that were lined up like buttons on a blouse waiting to be done up.”

However, there are instances where Shea almost overdoes it: “February and its drabness stretched out before her… An airplane crossed the sky like a zipper parting the clouds.” This time, the first image is enough, and the simile two lines below it somewhat reaches too far.

Theresa Shea does not give us the cliché ending that we want – and that’s promising. Drenched in realism, this novel shows that in life, there are no clean breaks or flawless endings. So while the ending is realistic, some convenient coincidences are questionable. Elizabeth’s run-in and subsequent conversation with Rebecca–who she believes to be her biological aunt–is somewhat unrealistic (would Rebecca really divulge that many personal family details to an overly curious stranger like Elizabeth?), but at least plausible on Elizabeth’s part since her desperation has been built up and becomes warranted throughout the story.

For a third of the novel, the narrative perspectives are largely reserved for each central character, and the other figures tend to be cast in a darker light, especially the doctors Margaret deals with. However, all of this changes when Dr. Maclean of Poplar Grove has an epiphany about the living conditions there. His point of view is suddenly provided and he becomes human. Later on in the novel, Shea’s opinion appears to speak through Dr. Maclean: “‘the greatest epiphany I ever had was the realization that compassion is a learned behaviour. So those contact moments, those moments where we see a child with Down syndrome, or in a wheelchair, are moments that elicit compassion. What happens to us, as a species, if we limit those moments of contact?’” As I’ve mentioned above, I enjoyed this didactic aspect of the story; because of that element, this connected and emotional tale has become something much bigger than a piece of literature.

The term “unfinished children” refers to the imperfect ones, the human beings who fall short next to the blessed others who are warmly welcomed by society. But in this novel, the child is unfinished because her relationship with her mother is severed. The children are not naturally or medically unfinished. Rather, they are only unfinished because their lives are cut short by ignorant doctors, or their bright potential is underestimated by society, and, in some cases, their lives are terminated before they even begin. The Unfinished Child instructs us to dream of a future “playground with enough swings for every child.”

I recommend The Unfinished Child to any mother or woman who wishes to become a mother; however, anyone who reads it will be compelled to identify with these troubled characters and their overarching dilemmas, and consequently develop empathy for the real-life Carolyns, Margarets, Elizabeths, and Maries. Although the story is largely delivered from a female perspective, male readers will still be emotionally and intellectually stimulated by The Unfinished Child, especially those with a personal connection to someone either living with a disability or dealing with genetic testing. The novel broadened my awareness of the problems with genetic screening and the profound purpose of people with disabilities; Theresa Shea will surely have more to teach us in her future work.

Brindle & Glass | 312 pages |  $19.95 | paper | ISBN # 978-1927366028


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Carlyn Schellenberg

Carlyn Schellenberg is a writer and associate editor for the Winnipeg Review.