It’s unfortunate that a book centred around the author undergoing an abortion in 1963 and all the difficulties and trauma that came with it is still so startling relevant in today’s society. Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ll have seen all the news regarding abortion reform, with women’s rights and choices regarding their own bodies still under threat in 2019. Happening has never been more pertinent and if I could buy a copy for everyone then I would – sadly, I have a tight budget, so you’ll have to buy your own copy, but I promise you won’t regret it.
At age 23, Ernaux finds herself pregnant with no intention of raising a child at this time in her life. As abortion is still outlawed in France at the time, Ernaux is forced to seek out someone who will perform the operation illegally, after trying and failing to get help from her doctor. This book is only 80 pages and recounts just three months of a woman’s life, but what you read within these pages will stick with you for a long time.
For the first month or so, Ernaux struggles to find an abortionist, and so attempts to perform one on herself with a knitting needle. Yes, it is uncomfortable. It’s graphic. Visceral, raw, and so real. Consider this your trigger warning, but personally I welcome the discomfort for a few pages and hours when you compare it to the fact that this is a reality so many women are subjected to for lack of a safer choice.
But when she does finally manage to find someone who can perform the operation, things don’t get any better. Ernaux ended up in a life-threatening condition which saw her hospitalised and still pregnant. What happens next is for you to bear witness to. I read it on the train and will vividly remember that scene always and my reaction to it. I again stand by the fact that we need this kind of memoir to remind us why it’s so important to fight for these rights.
The translation from the French by Tanya Leslie is flawless, as she captures Ernaux’s intensity and pain and to render that in another language is commendable. Ernaux certainly doesn’t dance around this tender topic, deliberately slowing down every moment so she can pinpoint exactly what she was feeling and experiencing during these turbulent four months.
This memoir of an illegal abortion in 1960s France serves as a stark reminder of what women might be forced to turn to in the future – and what still remains the only choice for many.