Another week, another great read: although this is a very different novel than anything I’ve read recently. Angela Chadwick’s debut probes some of the dark turns our society could (and does) take when family and parenthood come to the fore of public consciousness. Speculative fiction with a distinctly feminist tone, XX balances the conceptual explorations with a compelling, poignant plot about what it means to love someone.
A revolutionary clinical trial enables two women to conceive a child together. As no male DNA is involved, children conceived this way can only be female. Rosie and Jules are excited by this opportunity, applying instantly to finally start a family together, and make history too.
Though they knew that such a trial would be of great public interest, nothing could have prepared them for the relentless media attention and political scrutiny aimed in their direction. In spite of the opportunities this offers to so many women and couples, fear-mongering soon surrounds Ovum-to-Ovum technology and anyone associated with it. Some even begin to question whether this is actually a sinister plot to eradicate the male population completely.
However much they try, Rosie and Jules cannot escape the focus placed upon them, putting intense pressure on their once solid relationship. Can they last through it, or will this decision be one that they come to regret?
I was expecting a much darker tone from this novel: I interpreted the promotional material completely differently to what actually materialised within the book. The surprise was actually a fantastic one. Speculative fiction often veers further into dystopia or thriller territory, but XX felt more grounded and poignant, which I very much enjoyed.
For though Chadwick delves into explorations of scientific advances, the politics of contemporary media (and the media circus of politics), and deep-rooted ideas of love and family, the focus remains on the domestic sphere, namely on the relationship of Rosie and Jules. This grounds the speculative reaches of the story, always pulling us back to the emotional impact of the wider situations.
The relationship between Rosie and Jules is complicated, but ultimately a strong and equal one. The narrative is told from Jules’ perspective, but we are never expected to solely take her side. We see these women and their love for one another in times of joy, and in times of intense stress and turmoil; and whatever mistakes either of them make throughout their journey, I was always hoping that they would find a way to resolve their troubles.
I appreciated that this was a novel that explored a lesbian relationship that was long-established rather than burgeoning; a story about considering parenthood and motherhood rather than a blossoming romance. While there’s nothing wrong with those stories, it just feels as though as lot of novels focus on setting up relationships rather than showing the realities of life being lived together.
The concept of a clinical trial offering ovum-to-ovum fertilisation was inspired because it allowed Chadwick to explore many aspects of cultural understandings within the one main story. These included gender norms, cultural ideas of family, media frenzies, and political campaigns. It all felt very organic, naturally part of this story rather than manufactured additions.
These are explored from so many perspectives. While the focus is obviously on Rosie and Jules, we see how their families react to their participation in the trial; the impact on their friends and colleagues; the opinions of medical professionals, journalists, and politicians. The attention garnered by the trial provided compelling tension, especially when threats start arriving for Rosie, Jules, and the medical team. It shows how vicious people can become in the face of new ideas, but adds extra layers and nuance to the whole piece by exploring opposing opinions.
In doing this, Chadwick asks questions of the reader. How would we feel if O-O fertilisation became a reality in our time? Would we get caught up in the media frenzy, in the spectacle created from scientific progress and personal choices? That’s what’s so great about speculative fiction: when written well, as XX certainly is, it encourages us to escape to a different reality while also turning the lens from the story to the reader.
Some aspects of the novel could potentially have been fleshed out further: some parts of the story and certain characters intrigued me and I wanted to know more. It’s more a further demonstration of Chadwick’s incredible skill rather than a critique of the novel, because I genuinely could have read 100 pages exploring these characters’ lives.
Overall, XX is a fascinating, gripping read. It has suspense and intrigue, nuanced explorations of complex themes, and at its heart, a remarkable story about love and family.
*XX, written by Angela Chadwick, was published in 2018 by Dialogue Books, an imprint of Little, Brown Book Group
**Thanks so much to the team at Dialogue Books for sending the proof copy of this book as part of the giveaway on Twitter