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Half-known Lives

by Joan Givner

It’s always entertaining for women to speculate about how differently the world might be ordered if men could get pregnant. Child care could become a public policy priority; there would certainly be shifts in the eternally prickly abortion debate.

In Half-Known Lives, five Saskatchewan women decide to answer these speculations by kidnapping lawyer and strenuous right-to-lifer Max Hoffman and forcing him, as he would force women, through an unwanted pregnancy and birth. The biological details are fuzzy, but one of the group, Simone, a doctor specializing in reproductive issues, somehow implants Max with the biological necessities. The novel is narrated by Lucy, an aged feminist scholar looking back, at the request of a mysterious guest, on the events surrounding the bizarre experiment.

One of several puzzling aspects in the novel is Max’s passivity. It’s not every busy, high-profile lawyer who would easily let himself be held for months, without much discussion, by unarmed women in an ordinary urban house. The women’s actions and relationships are also often rendered vaguely, perhaps because, as narrator Lucy acknowledges, she is less than astute about her colleagues’ characters and motivations.

Givner, a biographer and author of four short story collections, has quite a few potentially fascinating stories and tones on her hands, but doesn’t land on any long enough for them to develop. Even the delicious, revolutionary first question – what if men could get pregnant? – is reduced to a private upheaval amongst a small group of women. Because it originated in the criminal act of kidnap, Max’s fantastic pregnancy remains a lifelong secret for all involved – until a dying Lucy starts spilling the beans to her insistent visitor.