23 June, 2016

Avalanche: A Book Review

Several weeks ago, I was sent a review copy of a new book - I don’t know the author, and have no connections with the publisher, but they’d found my blog. I was under no obligation to write a review, but when I stayed awake to 1 am to finish it, I knew I was going to do so.

Julia Leigh's Avalanche is a small book, split into two sections. The first deals with her marriage and first forays into trying to have a child with her husband. Their relationship was obviously complicated, and I couldn’t really relate to this part of the book at all. Following their divorce, the author then pursued IVF with a donor, and tells her story of the process, the reactions of those around her, and some of her own thoughts.

The author is a novelist and a film director, and she knows how to convey emotions and events. Her writing is often beautifully spare – something I envy, but can only rarely achieve. There is much unsaid in this book, subtly mentioned or only hinted at, events and conversations and observations recounted with no embellishing commentary. Having been around IVF and writing and thinking about the assisted reproduction world for a long time now, I enjoyed these subtle mentions, recognising them immediately, laughing or flinching or rolling my eyes in disgust at a simple sentence that said so much.

But, as Sarah said, there is a “shady abyss that lies between what is obvious to me and what is obvious to everyone else.” So I worry that the average reader – perhaps someone who was reading this to learn about the process, or to find out how to support someone who had been or was going through IVF – might miss these hints completely. I fear that the impact of the beautiful brevity of her words will sadly be lost, because the messages are there.

Still, for me there was a delightful feeling of being in the club, for once I could get the jokes (and weep the tears), and was in the circle.

I started trying to conceive in my mid-late 30s, and so could very much relate to some of the issues the author raised. This one in particular, made me laugh in recognition, and cringe at my naivete:
 “It seemed that every second day a celebrity in her forties was having a baby. I gratefully swallowed the evidence.”
We start to see her recognition that women without children are subject to judgement not empathy:
“In the public imagination – as I perceive it - there’s a qualified sympathy for IVF patients, not unlike that for smokers who get lung cancer. Unspoken: “You signed up for it, so what did you expect …?”
 She touches too on what drives many of us to have children, and why we feel so bereft when it doesn’t work.
“Part of me wanted to have a child just so I could have an inviolable reason for being.”

The loss so many of us feel when we can’t have children, yet which the majority of society don’t see as a loss or grief, is painfully acknowledged in this paragraph:
“I’m an expert at make-believe. Our child was not unreal to me. It was not a real child but also it was not unreal. Maybe a better way to say it is that the unknown unconceived had been an inner presence. A desired and nurtured inner presence. Not real but a singular presence in which I had radical faith.A presence that could not be substituted or replaced.”
I am also sure we could all relate to her gratitude to the doctor who referred to the embryo as “the baby,” even though she herself lists the damning statistics of the likelihood of her embryos ever being born.

It took me many years before I could say the words, “infertile” or “infertility,” so I had to laugh in recognition at this:
“Infertile. A slip of the tongue. … I wasn’t infertile I was ‘trying to get pregnant.’”
She makes the usual observations – usual for us, perhaps not for those who have never been infertile or childless by chance/circumstance – about pursuing motherhood in our modern, Western societies. I found her contrast with the Australian Torres Strait Islanders, where she noted that a “clinic on the island would almost certainly go bankrupt” to be interesting, as there was a real similarity with the Maori and Polynesian peoples here in New Zealand. Likewise, adoption seems to be equally difficult in both our countries.

She goes into some details of the process of IVF, and this would be useful for anyone – in particular I think for those who have friends or family going through this.
“An uncharitable thought ... IVF seemed to be a great deal about levels and cut-offs. If number X, then do Y. I wondered if it was the medical equivalent of conveyancing in the legal world, which is to say, largely formulaic, a matter of following protocol.”

“It seemed that only a veil of science shrouded the vast mystery.”
She talks about costs, and how suddenly $5-600 seems like nothing at all, an incidental add-on when, even though some of her costs were recoverable through Australia’s Medicare system, she was spending thousands of dollars every cycle. Then there was this one, simple sentence that says it all:
“In the parking spot reserved for Medical Practitioners Only I noticed a Bentley.”
The emotional impact of doing IVF is clear throughout the book, and she writes about not talking about IVF, and about feeling smaller, less than, “pathetic,” and about the isolation of going through this.

Finally, she acknowledges that there “… was another way out of limbo. The dark and rocky path.”
She doesn’t touch on the dark and rocky path in any detail. But she does touch on the doubt I’m sure we have all felt when first venturing out on that path.
“I tried everything. But did I? Did I really?” 
The book is subtitled A Love Story. There are at least three if not four love stories here – the one with her ex-husband, with the child she hoped to have, the ongoing love story with her nieces, and finally, rediscovering a love story with both herself and the world. I hope this acknowledgement of healing and recovery will give hope to others who may be facing the dark and rocky path – the one that, as I always say, leads up into the sun with expansive, if different, vistas.


  1. I'm on the edge of my seat from reading this review. Avalanche is on my reading list, but I'm downloading it today to start. Thank you for this thoughtful review.

  2. I am always up for a well-written infertility/childless after memoir. I have put this one on my wish list. Thanks for the review!

  3. This definitely sounds like a book worth reading! Thank you for your opinion on it.

  4. What a terrific review -- I am so interested in this book. I am also envious of those who can do the spare prose thing...I have to work hard to attempt it at all. It sounds like an interesting story in four parts. I think I'll be downloading it for my summer list... Thank you!

  5. I love the excerpts you've included here: they are perceptions / observations that only someone who's been involved with infertility would properly relate to. Excellent review.

  6. I felt similarly regarding all that is unsaid in the book, as well as the absence of embellishing commentary, especially at first. I also have come to feel that the rawness and lack of justifications/explanations are what give it such power. Love your reference to that "delightful feeling of being in the club" - I know, right? It's interesting to see what people are pulling out of the book, most of what you chose to quote is what also stuck to me.

  7. Like you, I sort of wondered if anyone who hadn't gone through infertility would pick up all the subtext of the conversations and moments Leigh describes (I hope so, though, as Leigh really does cover it well). A lot of the quotes you mention are things that struck me throughout the book as well.