(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 15)

The title of Fay Weldon’s novel refers to the fungus which resembles a pregnant swelling, has an evil reputation as a potion ingredient among herbalist witches and, for the gourmet, is delicious and cheeselike when grilled with meat. This symbol provides only a mild hint of the complexity of the novel.

Other writers have packed more into shorter novels, but Weldon does not pack, in the sense of creating something dense in the manner of Stella Gibbons or Evelyn Waugh. The word “economical” has been used to describe her work. Her prose style is indeed economical: short sentences, paragraphs, and chapters. It would be absurd, however, to call a novel “economical” which has twenty-six noteworthy characters creating a tangle of plots and subplots.

What Weldon attempts to depict is a massive web of plots and characters. The novel contains a technical, clinical view of motherhood and a metaphorical view of motherhood; an omniscient authorial voice which deals evenhandedly with science and witchcraft; a witchcraft comedy of errors with misapplied potions; a guilty sex-farce comedy of errors; a town-and-country conflict with incidental urban scenes involving hippie squatters, open-marriage gourmets, disapproving in-laws, sex-starved secretaries, and wise children, as well as rustic types sillier than those of Thomas Hardy but nobler than those of Evelyn Waugh.

The series of “Inside Liffey” interchapters explain what happens in Liffey Lee-Fox’s body when she is on the pill, when she is first off the pill, why she gets pregnant at one time and not some other times, and what is happening to her husband Richard Lee-Fox’s sperm. Thorough research is diluted with dashes of whimsy. At first, these interchapters may strike the reader as “public service” padding: good information, bad literature.

It becomes increasingly apparent, however, that something new and odd is being perpetrated. If Liffey and Richard, and Mabs and Tucker Pierce knew any of this “inside” information, all their fears, jealousy, and guilt would vanish. It is not Liffey’s fault that she does not get pregnant sooner; it is not Tucker who fathers her child. The authorial voice, and the reader, know things that the characters can never know.

Clearly, women, and men, must act in massive ignorance about the minute-to-minute activities inside their bodies. The reader, however, is told more than the most expert, continuously monitoring medical team could know, more than readers will want to know, given that this information does not connect to any developed notion of fate or providence. The omniscient narrator does not control, sympathize, laugh, judge, or marvel.

On another level, the readers are asked to forget what they omnisciently know, and sympathize with Liffey as the potential victim of everything evil in the past and present that hates motherhood. Liffey is a woman of no distinction, except as a mother, and it is only through motherhood, exemplified in her unborn child mystically speaking words of comfort, that she has a chance for survival.

Liffey as a mother is trapped between the inscrutable workings of her body and witchcraft, which Weldon has researched as thoroughly as she has gynecology. The herbalism of witchcraft interacts with gynecology when the “Inside Liffey” interchapters explain what effect the potions are having on Liffey and her baby. The less rationally explainable aspects of witchcraft are given weight in the novel by the simple fact that they work. Mabs’s most notable failures are amply foreshadowed by...

(The entire section is 1467 words.)