I saw Francesca Segal in conversation with Amanda Craig at the Jewish Book Festival in March 2018 and was immediately intrigued when she said she was writing a non-fiction book about the premature birth of her identical twin daughters ten weeks before their due date. Published in the UK this week, ‘Mother Ship’ is presented as a diary of the 56 fraught days the babies (initially known as A-lette and B-lette) spent in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) in the weeks leading up to Christmas 2015.
Even though it is known from the outset that the eventual outcome is thankfully a happy one, there is no shortage of dramatic tension in Segal’s account of the emotional rollercoaster which followed a traumatic birth and the period of limbo where she is a mother but cannot fully begin “motherhood” in the way she expected. The sense of fragility is brilliantly conveyed in different ways, from the delicacy of the babies’ skin which means they are unable to wear clothes in their incubators, to the terrifying precariousness of their lives when one of the twins is diagnosed with necrotising enterocolitis (NEC), a dangerous infection with a survival rate below 50% for pre-term babies.
Having twins in this situation presents further logistical difficulties for Segal and her husband, Gabe. Within days, one of their daughters is transferred to a different hospital, leaving Segal to shuttle between the two across London, all while she is expressing milk up to ten times a day and recovering from major surgery herself. And there are other parents from all walks of life in similar circumstances – Segal refers to the place where the new mothers of premature babies bond over their shared experience as the “milking shed”. The NHS as an institution and the kindness of the individuals within it are celebrated as a central part of the experience.
The Wellcome Book Prize awarded to fiction and non-fiction books on the theme of healthcare and medicine has been “paused” and won’t be taking place in 2020, which is a shame as I am sure this insightful and beautifully written account would have been a very strong contender. Many thanks to Random House UK Chatto & Windus for sending me a review copy of ‘Mother Ship’ via NetGalley.