Sylvia Brownrigg’s fourth book, The Delivery Room, was my choice for the Serbia portion of my Around the World in 80 Books challenge. I was intrigued by the storyline, which revolves around the Serbian conflict, and was eager to read it due to the reviews which promised lyrical prose, something which I adore within fiction. Michael Chabon, for example, writes, ‘In Sylvia Brownrigg’s hands, grief and longing are as sensuous a part of life as a fine meal or the touch of a lover.’
The Delivery Room, heralded a ‘compelling, complex, and always deeply human’ novel, begins in 1998, in the ‘safe haven’ of Mira’s north London flat. She works as a therapist with a host of very different clients from one of the rooms, which her husband has dubbed ‘the Delivery Room’. Mira herself is Serbian; the book’s blurb states that she must exist ‘in a time when Serbs have become the pariahs of the West, when Milosevic’s Yugoslav army is continuing its bloody struggle in Kosovo, testing NATO’s resolve.’
In terms of the characters who people Brownrigg’s novel, the reader gets a feel for them immediately. Mira’s husband Peter, for instance, ‘opened his eyes, and there she was before him: confessor, magician, wife. His beloved Mira. Gatherer of stories.’ Vastly different viewpoints about many issues are explored here, all using the lens of Mira’s quite diverse psychology patients. In this manner, Brownrigg opens up her novel to encompass more than one viewpoint on the war in Serbia and its aftermath. Mira’s story, as one might expect, is by far the most compelling, perhaps because she seems to relate everything with more authority than some of the secondary characters have.
Brownrigg’s sense of observance, and the attention to detail throughout The Delivery Room, are sharp and focused. There are some startling pieces of comparative prose here which illustrate Brownrigg’s world and character descriptions wonderfully; for instance, ‘a voice so thick he wanted to stroke it’, ‘a pale planet of a face that floated for a moment there by the night-dark door’, and ‘there was something he concealed from her, a tumour of information’. Serbia herself is used as a character within the novel; she looms over and pervades all. Mira, for instance, spends time ‘Watching from a distance as her former country worried itself into separate bloodied pieces, and parts and limbs…’.
The Delivery Room is well informed about this particular period of Yugoslav history, and the ripples which it leaves in the West. Brownrigg’s writing is measured and intelligent, and sometimes quite powerful. The author’s use of language in this multilayered novel is often packed with meaning. Whilst there is rather a lot going on here at times, Brownrigg does not let this detract from the poignancy of the war’s effects, both upon those caught up in it, and its observers. Many themes run through The Delivery Room, but by far the most pervading is grief. In Mira’s particular case, Brownrigg demonstrates the importance of family, no matter how many miles and conflicts may separate them.
Due to the sheer amount of characters we are introduced to here, and whom the author has clearly made quite an effort to make distinct from one another, The Delivery Room sadly does not always feel like an entirely focused novel; rather, it tends to become a little meandering and repetitive at times. Regardless, the story does come together well in the end, and if you are interested in this period of history, it is certainly worth a read.