Avalanche by Julia Leigh

There’s all sorts of reasons why I don’t feel I’m in a position to comment on Julia Leigh’s Avalanche, an account of her experience with IVF. However, Leigh makes a statement early in her memoir that made me pause and think –

“In the public imagination – as I perceive it – there’s a qualified sympathy for IVF patients, not unlike that shown to smokers who get lung cancer. Unspoken: ‘You signed up for it, so what do you expect…?'”

“Qualified sympathy” – it’s an interesting phrase. Have I ever been guilty of qualified sympathy? Probably, although certainly not in relation to someone’s desire to have a baby. It’s these kind of gritty bits that lodged as I was reading Avalanche.

Leigh describes her yearning for a baby; the physically exhausting IVF process; and the emotional strain of constant cycles of waiting, hoping and disappointment –

“The process was forever throwing up new ways to be disappointed that I hadn’t even dreamt existed. The constant uncertainty took its toll.”

She began clear-minded about how many IVF cycles she was prepared to go through however, like many people on an IVF program, the gamblers mentality of “Just one more…” or “We’ve gone this far…” kicked in –

“…in the IVF world we all have our parameters, our personal lines in the sand. At least we do when we start out, before the harsh desert winds cut across the dunes… My own parameter was that I couldn’t face using a stranger’s sperm. I wanted to have a special personal bond with the father of my child.”

Avalanche does not have the happy ending you might expect. For this reason alone, it’s an important book. There’s no hint of the ‘miracle baby after 30 rounds of IVF’ story that is so often heard – instead, it’s a realistic and honest account of the gruelling and frequently unrewarding IVF process. Remarkably, what is absent from her story is any bitterness, although she admits to being selfish and questions whether this is compatible with being a good mother.

Leigh raises some of the ethical questions associated with IVF – costly additional procedures that are ‘impulse buys’ for women desperate for success, doctors that have a financial stake in clinics, and the ‘business’ of babies.

“An uncharitable thought… IVF seemed to be a great deal about levels and cut-offs. If number X, then do Y. I wondered if it was the medical equivalent of conveyancing in the legal world, which is to say, largely formulaic, a matter of following protocol.”

Her thoughts on the ethical issues, as well as the interface between the ‘formulaic’ and emotional decisions inherent in the IVF process were interesting but brief – I would have liked more although I appreciate that we’re talking about extremely complex issues. Equally, Leigh’s thoughts on grief and when we can grieve – for an imagined child? For an egg? For a blastocyst? For an embryo? – were fascinating but brief –

“I’m an expert at make-believe. Our child was not unreal to me … A desired and nurtured inner presence. Not real but a singular presence in which I had radical faith.”

3.5/5 Thought provoking.

“We bought a bottle of Cointreau and called it kissing syrup.”





17 responses

    • I’m reading a good portion of the longlist (leaving off Victoria and Offshore at this stage – both very long).

      I think this one was an interesting and important book but perhaps a bit light-on in terms of the big issues around IVF to make the shortlist. That said, I hate being judgey about memoirs!

  1. I love being a parent, and I have friends, pre-IVF, who went to enormous lengths to conceive. But “qualified sympathy”, yes my sympathy for people undertaking IVF is qualified, particularly those who have left it ‘too late’. I suppose I should hesitate to intrude on an area where some people feel enormous distress, but this is a first world problem and medical resources might better be directed elsewhere. I am glad the author has at least looked at the problem of consumer-driven medicine.

    • It’s certainly an interesting issue Bill and one that raises passionate opinions. I’ve always been on the side of ‘do what you like as long as it’s not hurting someone else’ but the lines with IVF blur when it’s Medicare funded…

  2. I found it raw and quite ugly at times, she is uncomprimisingly honest. That honesty and the lack of a miracle ending, gave it an unsettling kind of power. I think it is a brave book and I’m pleased I read it, not sure it will make the cut for the shortlist, but I’m always terrible at judging these things.

    • It’s the lack of a miracle ending that sets this book apart. I also thought she was honest but there were moments (only a few) when I also wondered how self-obsessed she was getting… She pulls that back by often talking about her love for her nieces. I guess the thing I struggled to believe was her total lack of bitterness or jealousy – people all around her probably had/ were having kids yet that didn’t seem to upset her.

  3. I think it’s high time this industry was outed and although I’ve got no intention of reading this book I’m glad that someone has written it. Unfortunately the women who’ve had their mental health and finances destroyed by the cycle of hope and despair are usually silenced by “their failure” and so the marketing of the pathetically small number of successes continues.

    • Leigh goes through some of the stats for IVF success – they’re low (20% or thereabouts) and even lower for women in their 40s. That said, she doesn’t really attack the industry and my suspicion is that she has another book in her about this issue – or at the very least, some gutsy feature articles!

  4. I’d echo Lisa. It seems that there’s a great deal of money to be made from heartache here. Interestingly, this is the second book I’ve seen reviewed recently which deals with the subject – Alexandra Heminsley’s Leap In had a great deal of coverage in the UK when it was published here last month.

    • I’ll look out for Leap – for a variety of reasons I’m interested in this topic (mainly because of the ethical/ emotional/ medical interface). Don’t know if Avalanche is released in the UK Susan – it’s a slim volume and I hadn’t seen it until it was included on the Stella Prize longlist.

  5. I’m still putting my thoughts together about this book. It was slim but packed a punch in unexpected ways.
    My next book with either be Cory Taylor’s or the one on Manus Island. I’ll be glad to jump back into Middle Earth after that for my LOTR readalong in March!!

    This year’s Stella’s have some weighty emotional issues behind them there covers!!

    • It was certainly thought-provoking.

      I’m reading An Isolated Incident now and will probably read the Blain or the Taylor next – trying to even out some of the misery with lighter picks! It’s an incredible longlist – so heavily weighted toward non-fiction.

      At this stage I won’t be reading Offshore or Victoria – both very long. Obviously if both make the shortlist I’ll be setting aside a lot of reading time!

  6. I’m not sure I could bring myself to read this, but it’s certainly interesting to hear that there’s a book like this on the market. Having gone through several rounds of IVF myself, I’m actually thinking I’m less likely to relate to her story because it sounds quite different from my own experiences, which were positive even when unsuccessful. It’s a complicated issue. THanks for sharing the review. Maybe I should check it out instead of assuming I won’t appreciate it!

    • Agree that it is a very, very complicated issue and so much depends on an individual’s circumstances. I can’t say whether it would be good to read or avoid if you’ve been through IVF. I’m always of the impression that there are so many of these types of stories online and in chat forums and that some people take comfort from participating in the dialogue and others quite the opposite. Either way, I can say that the book is well written and seemingly well researched.

  7. Pingback: Small Wrongs by Kate Rossmanith | booksaremyfavouriteandbest

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