fiction melanie white
Ramos’s response to this argument can be detected in glimmers of the manipulations at Golden Oaks, but she fails to develop these, and that’s partly because of fundamental flaws in the plot. If the farm were conceived as a criminal operation, there would be greater capacity for exploring abuse, but Ramos presents it as an above-board business venture. As a result, the suggestion that these surrogates are akin to prisoners in a human factory falls flat, as they have, in fact, chosen to sign up for the job and would be, in reality, free to come and go as they please. Golden Oaks’s stab at coercion (an imposed regime of healthy organic food, nature walks, antenatal massages and classical music) is unenforceable. As a result, a good deal of the novel’s power dwindles. The problem isn’t anything to do with surrogacy; it’s patriarchal capitalism that’s the real issue, and The Farm makes no inroads there. To order this book from the Literary Review Bookshop, see page 32.
The Farm By Joanne Ramos (Bloomsbury 326pp £12.99)
In her debut novel, The Farm, Joanne Ramos sets up the intriguing premise of monetising surrogacy by connecting needy immigrants with high-net-worth individuals who desire a child but are unable to have one or unwilling to do the heavy lifting.
The titular ‘farm’ is Golden Oaks, brainchild of businesswoman Mae Yu, who sources suitable ‘hosts’ (surrogates) with the help of women like Ate, an immigrant matriarch in New York City who regularly finds jobs for struggling women in her Filipino community. It doesn’t seem a great leap from baby-nursing for rich Manhattan yummy mummies to carrying their young, and it’s far more lucrative than cleaning toilets. The novel intertwines the experiences of four characters: Mae, Ate and two surrogates (welleducated, white ‘Premium Host’ Reagan and desperate Filipina Jane). It’s Jane who is at the heart of the book, lured by the promise of big money into leaving her infant daughter in her cousin Ate’s care while she performs nine months of surrogacy at Golden Oaks.
The Farm brims with the potential for an excoriation of capitalist exploitation, for dystopian darkness and sinister consequences, but it miscarries the opportunity. The novel’s central idea invites comparisons with The Handmaid’s Tale or Never Let Me Go, yet it’s nowhere near that literary league. In its timely brush with gender politics and the framework of multi-character perspectives, it has more in common with Naomi Alderman’s 2016 novel The Power. Unlike that feminist sci-fi thriller, the worst thing to happen in The Farm is that Jane’s daughter suffers an ear infection while her mother languishes upstate in the equivalent of a luxury hotel.
There are certainly resonant dilemmas in the novel (the universal problem of balancing childcare with the need to work, for one) and the characters serve as mouthpieces for the morally complex surrogacy debate:
You’ve got to understand what this place is. Okay? It’s a factory, and you’re the commodity.
Surrogacy – this kind of surrogacy! – is a commodification, a cheapening! Everything sacred – outsourced, packaged, sold to the highest bidder!
On the other hand, as the altruistic, idealistic Reagan points out, ‘Live-in nannies, baby nurses, wet nurses … Blood donors, kidney donors, bone-marrow donors, sperm donors. Surrogates. Egg donors’ – all of these are already commodified, so what’s the problem with Golden Oaks’s more organised business model?
The Play’s The Thing
Girl, Woman, Other By Bernadine Evaristo (Hamish Hamilton 464pp £16.99)
Polyphony requires balance: lines of mel- ody that interweave, supporting each other one moment, competing for dominance the next. In her new novel, Girl, Woman, Other, Bernadine Evaristo employs these qualities to wonderful effect, composing a compelling work of individual voices in counterpoint.
We begin with Amma, walking towards the National Theatre, where her play The Last Amazon of Dahomey will open later that night. Years of community centres and pubs, then a call from above one Monday morning and she’s made it here. Passing homeless people on her way to the theatre, reflecting on the ironies of her new status, she looks back at the squat in King’s Cross, her ‘decades on the fringe, a renegade lobbing hand grenades at the establishment that excluded her’, producing plays like Cunning Stunts and FGM: The Musical. Today, approaching the brutalist architecture, she worries: is she selling out in her middle age?
Meanwhile, Carole exits Liverpool Street station towards the investment bank where she is now a vice-president. Like Clarissa Dalloway, her mind wanders as she moves through London, musing on what brought her to this point: the awful early trauma; deciding to escape Peckham and poverty; the miraculous place at a posh university; all that privilege; and, despite her fear, beating the odds again and again, until here she is, still fighting for respect from everyone at work.
Then, Bummi – so proud of her vicepresident daughter, but devastated that Carole has chosen a white boyfriend, Freddy, and ‘English high society’ over her Nigerian culture and her own mama. Now, LaTisha – Carole’s school friend, raising three kids of her own and working at Tesco, where she always arrives on time, ‘Supervisor of the Month three times in six months’.
may 2019 | Literary Review 53