Book Review: Olive by Emma Gannon

Harper Collins €17.99

Olive is a woman who doesn’t want to have children. She doesn’t dislike children, she babysits, she enjoys kids. She merely doesn’t want to be a mother. Not such a biggie, one would have thought. But as Olive ages through the novel in a timespan running from 2008 to 2019, she finds herself having to defend her position time and time again. And very early on we discover that she’s split up from the love of her life because he wanted children and she simply didn’t. The personal cost to Olive of choosing a life without parenting is extraordinarily high. The company she keeps in present-day London seems to insist that a woman is not whole unless she has reproduced at least once. So Olive is on her own. A lot. If nothing else, this novel will lead to conversations about Olive’s particular kind of solitude, which I guess is the whole point.

The story opens in 2008 with Olive and her three close friends, Bea, Isla and Cec, moving out of their rented student flat. They’ve finished college and they’re on their way, although nobody gets much further than London or its commuter belt. The timeline shifts quite a lot, so take note of the year at the beginning of each chapter. In 2019, Olive has just broken up with her boyfriend of almost a decade because she opts out of motherhood. She’s left emotionally reeling but can’t cry on any of her close friends’ shoulders, because they’re all so busy with their own lives. Bea has had three children and her life is hectic. Cec is about to become a first-time mother and Isla is distraught from a round of unsuccessful IVF. In other words, Olive’s friends are all either dealing with motherhood itself or with their hunger for it.

As a magazine editor, Olive is married to the job. And when she comes across a notice about a support group for women who choose to be ‘child-free’ she sees an opportunity for a feature. She goes along, brings her friend Bea, and is confident that she will finally meet some like-minded women. But when the organization’s founding member admits that she’s finally pregnant and delighted, bang goes the feature. And the support group. It seems Olive is destined for a life of work and nothing else, and Gannon writes very eloquently about evening and weekend loneliness. Which begs the question; does choosing to be child-free mean choosing a life of interminable solitude? And if that’s the case, why?   

Emma Gannon has written two previous non-fiction books and was one of Forbes 30 Under 30 people to watch in 2018. Her debut novel reminds me of Anna Hope’s brilliant ‘Expectations’, although Hope’s novel is more expansive and profound. This book is tilted more towards the commercial fiction market, although it’s an absorbing story which will definitely spark interesting exchanges on the almost taboo topic of women who choose not to be mothers. 

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