The opening paragraph of ‘XX’ by Angela Chadwick is as good as any to sum up the premise of her debut novel published last year: “After years of controversial research, scientists at Portsmouth University’s Centre for Reproductive Medicine have this morning announced plans to create IVF babies from two women. They’re pushing for a change to the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act that will make it legal to fertilise an egg with genetic material from a second female.” Lesbian couple Rosie and Jules are quick to take up the opportunity to have a baby of their own through the means of a groundbreaking clinical trial, but a backlash from right-wing movements inevitably creates problems along the way.
Chadwick has considered this provocative debate from every possible angle, which makes ‘XX’ a richly developed and strangely plausible novel. With no XY chromosome in the “ovum-to-ovum” method of reproduction, the child will always be born with the sex chromosome XX and will therefore be female. It means that lesbian couples can have an equal genetic stake in any child they conceive rather than relying on a donor, but it also means that certain protest groups and politicians posit the trial as threatening the future existence of men, even though only a small proportion of couples would ever go down that route to conceive a child.
Rather than a utopian vision of the beginning of an all-female society, the novel is firmly rooted in contemporary culture and focuses on the wider social resistance towards this scientific advancement, addressing medical ethics, media privacy laws, homophobia and misogyny among many other things. Rosie and Jules have nowhere to hide from the incessant intrusion and public commentary after the news of Rosie’s pregnancy is leaked to the media. Jules is a journalist and discovers that being the centre of the story herself is at best uncomfortable and at worst intolerable experience which also has far-reaching consequences for the couple’s friends and families. The hostile and reactionary political atmosphere is well drawn and sadly realistic, with so many people now forming immediate opinions based on social media posts from unreliable sources instead of carefully considering the complex issues involved.
‘XX’ is a balanced and well thought-out novel. The light prose style contrasts nicely with the extreme circumstances depicted in the story and despite having such an issue-driven topic at its centre, Chadwick doesn’t lose sight of the importance of plot and character development. ‘XX’ would have been on my Wellcome Book Prize wish list as a possible contender this year had I been familiar with it earlier.