Posted by: Lisa Hill | July 15, 2018

Surrogate, a novel (2017), by Tracy Crisp

It took a little while for this novel to engage me: the characterisation of the central character is rather flat and it was not until the plot progressed that I realised why: women who are confident and secure in their relationships don’t find themselves manipulated into secret surrogacies…

Surrogate is the story of three women, Rachael Carter, a vulnerable young nurse who – out of the blue (or so it seems) – is asked to house-sit for Dr Cate O’Reilly while she travels to Vietnam to adopt a baby.  This part of the story is set in the 1990s, while woven through it is the story of Mary Bowen, a relinquishing mother in the 1960s.

While Rachael and Mary are passive women who cave in to what others expect of them, Dr Cate knows exactly what she wants.  She is married to a nice man called Drum (Drummond) and they have everything that a successful professional couple might want in 1990s Adelaide – except a child.  The characterisation doesn’t allow the reader to see the emotional desperation that she feels, except that Drum’s feelings about her infertility are always expressed in terms of his concern for her.

And when the adoption goes wrong (for unexplained reasons) in Vietnam, Drum uses his concern about Cate’s vulnerability to pressure Rachael, not just into surrogacy but into keeping it secret.  It is the secrecy surrounding both Mary’s teenage pregnancy and Rachael’s surrogacy which exacerbates the situation.

Surrogate, a novel raises all kinds of questions about motherhood and mothering, about altruism and financial vulnerability, and about whether power can ever be equal in surrogacy situations.  At only 230 pages the writing is economic, and the prose is spare… there’s a reticence about the novel that means the reader needs to ‘read between the lines’ when the plot seems to progress too rapidly.  It’s as if the reader is being situated as an observer who doesn’t know everything that’s going on.  That emotional reticence seems to reinforce the impossibility of imagining being in this situation unless you’ve been there yourself, being desperate for a baby while maintaining a cool demeanour always totally in control; or being forced to give up a baby after months of psychological abuse in an institution; or being manipulated into a surrogacy situation where part of the bargain is that you tell no one.

The issues this book raises might make it a good choice for book groups, with the caveat that it might raise emotions that are ‘too close to the bone’ for some.  And as the book shows with its motif of secrecy, we don’t always know about the hidden pain that friends choose not to reveal.  Among women a little older than my age group, women who were teenagers before the pill, before the supporting mothers pension and before the liberating attitudes that went with those changes, teenage pregnancies usually meant relinquishment.  And if the experience of someone I knew was anything to go by, secrecy was paramount.  I wasn’t told about why she went away for a while until decades later.  How she coped with the stillbirth when everyone told her it was all for the best, I cannot imagine.  Whether or not she still keeps this traumatic experience secret now, I suspect that it’s probably not something she’d want to revisit in a book-group over wine and cheese…

Author: Tracy Crisp
Title: Surrogate, a novel
Publisher: Wakefield Press, 2017
ISBN: 9781743055083
Review copy courtesy of Wakefield Press


  1. Using third world people as bodies for bearing children or for ‘spare’ kidneys etc seems very problematic to me. Relinquishment was common right up to the 70s as far as I know, I’m not sure it was a bad thing, though it was handled quite harshly. I had friends married at the end of high school, trying to manage a baby while he did teacher ed. and she was stuck at home with neither income nor further education.


    • Yes, there’s some very dodgy practices overseas, but this story is about covert surrogacy in Australia (where it is also practised openly but under strict conditions). Relinquishment still happens today but it’s under very different conditions and having ongoing contact with the birth mother is part of the deal. It seems to me that there is no ideal solution to unwanted pregnancies…


  2. […] group notes are available from Transit Lounge.  See also Surrogate, a Novel, by Australian author Tracy […]


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