Seaside light can make reality less harsh. Hazy and diffuse with moisture, bright with reflection, it lends its subjects a particular glow. In “The Patron Saint of Pregnant Girls,” her 11th novel, Ursula Hegi uses that illumination to cast a dream-like spell over the community of Nordstrand, Germany, for a lyrical meditation on motherhood and mourning.
August 1879 and Nordstrand, a small island in the Nordsee, is at its best. The Ludwig Zirkus has arrived for its annual appearance, setting up its tent on the grounds of St. Margaret’s Home for Pregnant Girls in exchange for tickets, to everyone’s delight. But as one family wends its way home over the tidal flats, wading happily in “the sun’s water,” a freak occurrence — a “hundred-year wave” — takes three children, tearing them from their mother Lotte’s grasp. During the search, the pregnant Tilli — a St. Margaret’s girl — goes into labor, while Sabine – the circus’s costumer and a mother herself — seeks to support the grief-maddened Lotte. As the waters recede with no sign of the missing children, these three will grow increasingly entwined through love, grief, and healing.
Motherhood poses unique challenges to these women. Lotte’s situation is the most obvious, but the problems increase as her loss incapacitates her from caring for her surviving child, the infant Wilhelm. Sabine, a single mother, struggles to protect her daughter Heike, who, although physically adult, has the cognition of an 8-year-old. “Lotte used to think how devastating it must be for Sabine to raise such a child. But now — she shivers.” Tilli, meanwhile, is a child herself. At just 11 years old, she is lucky to survive giving birth. Rejected by her family — who choose to keep the twin brother who impregnated her — she is also reeling from the loss of her baby, surrendered for adoption.
How these three cope is at the center of this book, and Hegi doesn’t shy away from their pain, which manifests in the details. Lotte bargains fruitlessly: “The one in my arms for the other three,” while Tilli wakes to disorientation: “and the infirmary is dark and keening and she’s terrified of the keening and of the empty where her own girl — is? — was?”
These losses are compounded when Kalle, Lotte’s overwhelmed husband, runs away with the circus when it leaves, a betrayal that prompts Sabine to recall her own abandonment and the realization that Heike — “body of a woman, mind of a child” — will never be able to deal with the responsibilities of motherhood. Life is difficult for all, of course, but particularly the women of Nordstrand, and the cemetery has its portion of “mothers who die in childbirth and are buried with their infants — born dead, or alive for just a few hours,” who come to include TIlli’s friend, Marlene.
But Hegi is gentle with her characters, offering them consolation in their shared humanity. An abused wife finds comfort with the loving fisherman she jilted long ago, while the son of the circus’s ringmaster learns in the most prosaic way that his aging father views his male partner as family. Even the nuns who run St. Margaret’s are warm and understanding of their young charges, with idiosyncrasies and appetites of their own. Sister Hildegund, for example, takes undue pride in her fantastical — and frighteningly bad — paintings of the house’s patron saint and a dragon, but proves herself to be more pragmatic when confronted with lesbian relationships among the order.
“This is not right,” she confronts the sister caught sneaking down the hall one night. “You wake everyone up traipsing back and forth,” she says, before solving the problem by moving the lovers to adjoining cells.
Cast largely as a series of intimate vignettes, these everyday interactions are depicted with a sensitivity that gives these most human of relationships their proper weight. Narrated by a succession of characters, they are beautiful in their specificity. The priest, for example, “knows all the sisters by their confessions: Sister Ida is secretive; Sister Elinor takes pride in her body; Sister Konstanze prefers birds to humans.” In Hegi’s precise, almost imagistic prose, such quotidian scenes come to seem as magical as the miracle Sister Hildegunde is constantly attempting to paint. After Kalle “leaps into the dory of the beekeeper who lunges for the oars, arms silver with pale hairs, like a god who will go beneath the sea to bring back your children,” other legends, such as one about the lost island of Rungholt that can be reached only once each spring, seem feasible.
No surprise, then, that when Lotte’s madness threatens another tragedy, it will be their communal experience that draws these three mothers — and their families — together, ultimately transforming them all.
THE PATRON SAINT OF PREGNANT GIRLS
By Ursula Hegi
Flatiron Books, 288 pp., $26.99
Clea Simon’s latest novel is “An Incantation of Cats.” She can be reached at www.cleasimon.com.