Posted by: Lisa Hill | July 15, 2019

Mother of Pearl (2019), by Angela Savage

Angela Savage is a well-known literary identity in Melbourne: she’s Director of Writers Victoria, and she’s an award-winning writer of crime novels. Mother of Pearl, however, is a departure in genre, written as the creative component of her PhD thesis.  It’s a novel about commercial surrogacy in Thailand.

Readers might remember the grotesque story of an Australian sex-offender who had used commercial surrogacy in Thailand and then refused to take one of the resulting twins because the child had Down Syndrome.  Thailand has since banned commercial surrogacy (and so has Nepal and India) but that just means that agencies have debunked to Cambodia where surrogacy remains unregulated, and desperately poor Thai women are still travelling there to have embryos implanted.

So although Mother of Pearl is set in Thailand before commercial surrogacy was outlawed, the issues raised remain relevant today.  The novel explores the situation from the perspective of Meg, a Melbourne woman who has never come to terms with her infertility; her sister Anna who has spent her entire career as an aid worker trying to empower women in Southeast Asia; and the surrogate Mukda, a single mother who wants to improve the life chances of her son by earning the kind of money she could never otherwise earn.

Like an increasing number of us, I suppose, I’ve seen both sides of assisted reproductive technology, close up.  I’ve seen joy at the arrival of a longed-for baby, and I’ve seen the unresolved mental health issues caused by the promise of IVF as against its real success rates. These are now more transparent in Australia, but at best they’re around 35% for women under 30, and there’s always a gap between ‘clinical pregnancies’ and live births.  But it’s not so long ago that women were lured by false promises when the success rate was extremely low and the probability of a baby remained a dream for most who tried it.  And I’ve formed the view that the longer a woman persists with years of unsuccessful IVF the more likely it is that an obsession forms.

It’s that pathway that is followed by the character of Meg.  A chance encounter with a couple of gays and their new baby born through commercial surrogacy in Thailand is the trigger for her suppressed yearning to erupt into a new quest for a child.  And so begins the journey into what is an unfamiliar culture, a change in her relationship with her sister, and a steeliness about the transaction that will make some readers feel very uncomfortable.  Anna has to reconcile her professional concerns and her love for her sister, while the surrogate Mukda has to negotiate emotional burdens of her own.

I was interested to see that Savage also depicts the impact Meg’s childlessness has had on her friendships. :

She’d known Eleni, Simone and Michelle since school; and Annika since they studied gold-and silversmithing design together.  Perhaps it was her imagination, but Meg sensed the relief in the room was not all hers.  All four of friends had children […] Meg realised it had been a long time since her friends had talked about their kids in front of her.  She was grateful for their sensitivity, though it bothered her too, to think that they’d spent years tiptoeing around her.  (p.239)

What the author doesn’t show is the unreasonable rage that a childless women might feel when people aren’t sensitive.  Normal ‘water-cooler’ conversation about weekend family life can be interpreted as deliberate cruelty, when of course it’s not.

The book is written in three parts: Preconception; Gestation and Afterbirth, and although the reader feels fairly confident that a baby will be born, the narrative tension is maintained by the uncertainty that surrounds commercial transactions of this type.  Will it be healthy?  Will the birth mother hand over the baby?  Will the mother who has no genetic relationship with the baby bond with it?  However, I think it’s the ethical decisions that will engage readers most: the pressure that Meg puts on her loved ones to get what she wants; Anna’s angst about her role in facilitating something she feels uneasy about; and the implications of using women’s bodies within a culture where they have little power in the way of decision-making.

Reading group notes are available from Transit Lounge.  See also Surrogate, a Novel, by Australian author Tracy Crisp.

The striking cover design in by Peter Lo.

You might be interested to read Angela Savage’s post about switching genres here.

Update: see also this interview with Angela Savage at Amanda Curtin’s 2,2, and 2 series and — showing how topical the issue of commercial surrogacy is — this ABC article about the tension between the rising international demand for surrogacy and the possible ramifications of the final report to the UN General Assembly in October on the rights of children born from surrogacy.  The UN Special Rapporteur on the sale of children, Maud de Boer-Buquicchio, released her first report in 2018 on commercial surrogacy and the sale of children, which warned that a regulatory vacuum in international surrogacy arrangements was exposing children to human rights violations.

Author: Angela Savage
Title: Mother of Pearl
Publisher: Transit Lounge, 2019, 318 pages
ISBN: 9781925760354
Review copy courtesy of Transit Lounge

Available direct from Transit Lounge or Fishpond: Mother of Pearl



  1. I had the pleasure of reading an earlier draft of this manuscript, and I fell in love with it straight away. Angela is such a vivid and compelling writer, one who is able to tackle difficult subjects with empathy and nuance. I can’t wait to get my hands on this book!


    • Hello Magdalena, nice to hear from you:)
      I really enjoyed your book, Home is Nearby, which Angela recommended to me earlier this year.
      Are you working on a new book?


      • Hi Lisa, lovely to hear from you too! I’ve really been enjoying your blog, and your post on Indigenous authors has put me onto some Maori authors that are now on my TBR list (I’m very under-read when it comes to NZ authors). At the moment I’m working on a collection of short stories about motherhood and transgression. At the moment I’ve been gravitating towards books about motherhood, so Ange’s new book is right up my alley!


        • LOL I bet it is… you could write the story of what happens next: do the three women bond in some way? What happens to their relationship? What does The Kid think about it in years to come?


          • Yes, so many questions! The book certainly leads itself to discussion. It will be a good book-club read.


  2. Ahead of the official launch next week I was thrilled to be given a copy of Mother of Pearl. It gripped me from the start: the complex relationship between the Australian sisters; the young Thai women compelled to carry someone else’s baby in an attempt to lift their families from poverty; the empathic perspectives and insights of each point of view. A wonderful read.


    • Yes, I think the strength of this book is the complex interrelationships that develop. And, although I’ve never been to Thailand (not on my bucket list) I think she’s created a vivid picture of it, both from the PoV of the Thai people themselves and the Australians.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. This sounds like such an interesting book for a reading group. So many issues.


    • Absolutely.
      (Bookgroups could have takeaway Thai as well!)

      Liked by 1 person

  4. There are so many literary identities I’ve never heard of (or more likely, don’t remember hearing of). I’ve had friends who’ve struggled and struggled to conceive, and if surrogacy wasn’t a thing back then I guess behind the scenes women sometimes had children for their sisters, and now it pops into my mind that Jane Austen’s brother was given to a childless couple.


    • LOL I’m usually the one frowning at some celeb on TV and asking The Spouse who it is, I am hopeless at popular culture, but local Lit Culture, well, that’s different!
      Yes, I personally know of cases where Depression era large families sometimes gave away a child they couldn’t afford to keep, to someone who could afford to give the child a better life. But it’s all so much more complicated these days, especially since women often postpone having a family and don’t find out that they’re infertile till it’s a bit too late.
      I also know of a family that adopted a little girl. She wasn’t a baby, she was about two, but she’s part of a loving family now. And there are so many kids in need of foster homes, it’s quite heart-breaking that nobody wants them.
      OTOH you have writers like Enza Gandolfo writing (in her novel Swimming, and (more indirectly) in The Bridge) about childless women who have a good life, and don’t feel regret because they haven’t had children.


  5. I was thrilled to receive an advanced copy of this book – I’m always interested in stories that look at motherhood (and the grief that often comes with motherhood) from various perspectives. Like you, I know of many people that have struggled to conceive and also some who have decided not to have children. I know people that have fostered, have used donor sperm, have adopted from overseas… whichever way people do or don’t become mothers, the outcome is largely unpredictable. Which is why we keep writing about it!


    • “We” keep writing about it? Have I missed something? Are you writing a book??


  6. This sounds like a really good and really important book. Advances in science and technology have changed, and are continuing to change the world. How this all comes into play as it relates to people and ethics is profoundly important. I think that fiction is often a perfect way to explore these issues.


    • Yes, we tend not to think about these issues unless they concern us directly, but really, the ethics should concern us all.


  7. […] of Pearl is released on 1 August Find out more at Transit Lounge Read a review by Lisa Hill, ANZ LitLovers Follow Angela via her blog and on Twitter […]


  8. […] Lisa Hill at ANZLitLovers writes, ‘The book is written in three parts: Preconception; Gestation and Afterbirth, and […]


  9. […] the Zeitgeist’ which featured Angela Savage talking about her novel Mother of Pearl, (my review here); Alice Robinson and her cli-fi novel The Glad Shout, (my review here); and moderated by Kate […]


  10. […] Lisa (ANZLitLovers) also appreciated this book. […]


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