Review: The Unfinished Child

Angelique (Maple Books)

There’s nothing as terrifying as being told your newborn “will be sick a good deal and require special medical and nursing care, which cannot be given at home.” This is what Margaret Harrington from The Unfinished Child was told after her first baby was born in 1947. Though, little Carolyn wasn’t born with any immediately life-threatening birth defect. “I’m sorry to tell you that she is a mongoloid” said the doctor. In 1947, that meant Margaret’s daughter suffered from Down syndrome; and that might as well have been a death sentence.

The Unfinished Child: review by The Bookwheel

In 1947, a young woman named Margaret gave birth to a mongoloid and had her institutionalized. Fast forward to present day and Marie, age, 39, finds out she’s pregnant and has the option to undergo genetic testing to ensure her baby is normal. Meanwhile, Marie’s best friend since childhood, Elizabeth, is only recently coming to terms with her infertility, making their friendship fairly tenuous and adding to Marie’s guilt about the decisions she must make when she gets a hunch that something’s wrong with her baby. The Unfinished Child is a book about the decisions women face, the ones they must live with, and how societal views of Down Syndrome have changed over time. More than that, it’s about the complexities of friendship and the realization that maybe not everything is forever.

Publisher’s Weekly Review: The Unfinished Child

The birth and death of Carolyn Harrington, a girl with Down syndrome, are at the heart of this complex and sensitive debut novel set in Edmonton, Alberta. The medical establishment of 1947 regards baby Carolyn as an “unfinished child” and persuades her parents, Margaret and Donald, to place her in an institution where conditions turn out to be appalling. More than 50 years later, two Edmonton women in their late 30s confront issues that might destroy their lifelong friendship: just as Elizabeth Crewes gives up trying to have a baby after years of treatments for unexplained infertility, Marie MacPherson discovers to her surprise that she is pregnant with her third child, and then, following prenatal testing, that the child has Down syndrome. Shea develops the friendship between Marie and Elizabeth with insight into the competing desires of two women whose perfectionism makes them want to control the size of their families and the shape of their lives. At times, the exposition of the many medical issues Shea addresses in this novel can weigh down the dialogue, particularly in conversations between the women and their husbands. Yet the various strands of the plot come together in a gripping climax, raising compelling questions about moral responsibility in a 21st-century world that offers more choices than were available to the Harringtons decades before.

If ever there were a book club book

by John Richardson

Sometimes when discussing books either in writing or at book clubs I am reminded of some seminars in university in which we students shared our writing with each other and then were expected to sit about critically discussing the bits of paper.  Preparation for disertation defences, no doubt. But professors were constantly and obviously annoyed and frustrated by our timidity: “There’s a typo on page 4 . . .”, etc.  While there is at least one typo in The Unfinished Child by Theresa Shea, I have left University far enough behind that I will happily ignore it and move to more substantive issues (few) and praises (many).  But I must be careful to avoid spoilers, as the narrative is quite clever and enthralling, with unexpected and expected meetings.