Book Review: Helen Sedgwick, The Growing Season; Nicole Krauss, Forest Dark

Two ambitious novels weigh up the big questions about family, science and technology

This week we have a couple of novels that tackle big ideas about life and death through subtle manipulation of character and narrative.

First up is The Growing Season by Helen Sedgwick, a mildly dystopian story that is a follow-up to the English writer’s acclaimed debut, The Comet Seekers.

Sedgwick has a scientific background – she is a former research physicist – and big scientific ideas infuse both of her books.

In the case of The Growing Season the central premise is one that modern technology is fast approaching: What if humans could grow babies outside of the womb? In the novel this idea has become a reality, and a multinational company FullLife has developed the pouch, which enables foetuses to be grown to full term without any of the messy business of childbirth.

Sedgwick describes her off-kilter world brilliantly and considers the big ideas in her novel from all sides like a true scientist

And so, in this way, the burden or joy of pregnancy can be shared between couples of all types, and these pouches are available to all. Some see the pouches as salvation while others see them as a curse. Sedgwick runs her narrative through two central characters. Eva is a lifelong protestor against FullLife, while Piotr is a journalist who thinks he’s on to a story when bad things start happening to some babies produced via the pouches.

Sedgwick describes her off-kilter world brilliantly and she considers the big ideas in her novel from all sides like a true scientist, weighing up the pros and cons, showing the complex nature of all arguments. And with Piotr’s investigation she has her readers hooked into finding out what happens next.

It’s smart and thoughtful writing – a novel to make you consider deeply what family means and what the not-too-distant future might hold.

Equally as thoughtful is Nicole Krauss’s Forest Dark. This is the American writer’s fourth novel and it’s been seven years in the writing. Krauss has always tackled big ideas in her work, like Sedgwick, and this latest offering is no different.

Compared to Sedgwick’s ideas about morality and family, Krauss’s concerns in Forest Dark are more existential – why are our lives they way they are? What if we had chosen differently? How do we construct our own experience of the world around us, and is this any different from any other kind of narrative?

Krauss is a serious writer but one who also knows how to make the reader smile

Again, this book revolves around two central characters. First we have Epstein, a rich Jewish New Yorker who goes missing from the Tel Aviv Hilton after showing signs of a possible breakdown, or at least a crisis. Then we have an unnamed novelist struggling with a broken marriage, who leaves her husband and children behind and travels to Israel to find inspiration for her latest work in progress.

You might expect the two characters to interact, and they do of a fashion, but really this is cerebral stuff, full of resonances and metaphysical musings, as Krauss’s novelist narrator struggles to come to terms with her own life decisions, and slowly begins to make connections between both her fictional activities and her real life.

Like all of Krauss’s writing, the prose is crystal clear and delivered with confidence without ever being showy – she is a serious writer but one who also knows how to make the reader smile, and she’s always in control of her material in a way that many other writers are not. A sharp, provocative and compelling piece of writing that was worth the wait.

The Growing Season, Helen Sedgwick (Harvill Secker, £12.99), Forest Dark, Nicole Krauss (Bloomsbury, £16.99), out now

@doug_johnstone