Sunday 22 April 2018

On board the IVF rollercoaster as teen love is rekindled and lost

Memoir: Avalanche, Julia Leigh, Faber, hdbk, 144 pages, €12.99

Emotional avalanche: Australian novelist Julia Leigh
Emotional avalanche: Australian novelist Julia Leigh
Avalanche by Julia Leigh

Helen Brown

For a great many nights, the Australian novelist Julia Leigh injected herself with an artificial hormone produced from genetically modified Chinese hamster ovary cells. She performed this routine modern fertility treatment "knowing that no matter how hard I hoped, no matter what I tried, chances were I'd never have a child".

Leigh was 38 when she first walked into an IVF clinic with her partner, Paul. There they learnt that, although nothing was discernibly "wrong" with either of them, and despite the amazing and rapid advances in technology, the odds of their conceiving this way were still slim, and would become slimmer when Leigh passed 40.

The emotions, science and ­statistics are bafflingly complex, but Leigh nails them all in a volume that lays bare her five years on the IVF rollercoaster.

Like Rachel Cusk, she writes about herself and her intimate circle with arresting honesty. The kind of deep, dark pain that people normally hug to themselves is exposed in high definition. It's the sort of prose that people often call "unflinching", although Avalanche actually contains a lot of flinching: at the sight of needles and at the difficulties of writing honestly about oneself. She imagines her ex-husband asking: "Why are you writing this, Rat-wife? Rat-patient. Hey. Queen of the Rats, why?"

While she believes in the truth of what she is writing, she knows that "Paul would shape a different story. What's more, I know my own next sentence could turn this way or that". Leigh first met her partner at university. She was 19, he was 23. Their romance collapsed after a year, when Paul wanted to sleep with other people. This was no surprise.

They remained friends and reignited their romance when Leigh was 37, living in New York and working on a screenplay and a novel. Both had a "string of tender affections" behind them. His included a marriage and a 12-year-old son. But their connection, she feels, was different: "inevitable". Their "souls flared".

He said he would do anything to make her happy and asked what she wanted. She wanted him and she wanted a child. He agreed. But after their wedding, she says: "One of my inner eels slipped loose, an eel that took the guise of reasonable caution but was really a small, wriggling mistrust." Compared with the "Gordian knot" of her love for Paul, the gentle, steady love Leigh feels for her nieces and nephews is "a plain good thing". A child of her own would give her constant contact with such love. But in quest of it, she must navigate the range of options ­offered by the "druids" at the IVF clinic.

She has to choose which drugs to inject, whether to freeze or implant embryos and how much to spend. All this, while shot full of hormones that build up - "like snow in the night" - to leave her bloated, labile and prone to tears.

At times she tries to purify herself with yoga and decaffeinated drinks. At others, she drinks whiskey and wails. Paul leaves, and she has to find a sperm donor. At first, Leigh doesn't tell many people about the IVF and those she does tell say the wrong thing. Her mother says, flat out, that she is not cut out to be a mother.

Friends have stories that offer too much hope or too little. The public, she believes, have a "qualified sympathy" for women who undertake IVF. She feels she is treated like a smoker with lung cancer: "What did you expect?"

According to the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority, thousands of cycles of IVF or Intra-cytoplasmic Sperm Injections are carried out each year. There's an emotional avalanche coming for most of those women.

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