The daughter of Erich Segal, the Harvard professor who wrote the 1970s bestseller Love Story, Segal constantly invites the reader inside her clever, curious mind. It is full of thoughts about grief (parents are expected by staff to remain “jolly and indefatigable”), separation (returning home every night feels like a daily “amputation”) and what it truly means to be a mother...
Mother Ship is a huge achievement for Segal, who has produced a memoir that promises to linger with you like a literary earworm. Having witnessed the raw struggle of their early life, and curious to see what they look like now, I google a recent newspaper picture of the twins, who will be four in October.
Their big eyes and chubby cheeks stare back at me, an extraordinary testament to the power of human survival.
Mother Ship stands out most of all for its refreshing absence of solipsism, that sanctioned self-obsessiveness of new mothers who believe their experience to be the most significant in the world. Segal might occasionally mourn her lost, easy life of writing and reading, but for her “too much self is a hindrance”. Instead, she has written a paean to the depthless kindness of other people: the solidarity of fellow mothers who sustain each other with pastries and sound advice; the peerless machinery of the NHS, with its unsung army of workers whose dedication and expertise keep alive the moth-like babies in their care.
Segal’s diary of those first 56 days of her daughters’ lives creates a compelling and emotionally taut exploration of what it means to be a parent in unexpected and challenging circumstances. From the opening pages, when Segal describes her feelings about the psychological aftermath of her C-section and the immediate removal of her babies to intensive care, we know we are in unflinching territory... Segal, who won the Costa first novel award for her highly acclaimed debut, The Innocents, brings a novelist’s stylistic sensibility, a keen eye and a devastating honesty to events as they unfold... And yet, amid the bleakness and despair, there is both light and warmth... The pages of Mother Ship are filled with love, anguish, despair and hope in the face of adversity. As a memoir, it is both insightful and moving; as a diary of 56 days in neonatal care, it is an exquisitely written paean to motherhood.
Two years ago, the novelist Francesca Segal gave birth to twins ten weeks prematurely. Her account of their struggle to survive in the neo-natal units of two London hospitals could be mawkish, banal and of no interest to anyone save those who have experienced a similar ordeal. That it is, in fact, as gripping as a thriller and as moving as a love story is testament to her exquisite writing and deep humanity... Segal’s gentle humour and eye for character are two of the most admirable aspects of her book and make every setback and advance more affecting during the 56 days of struggle... Segal’s book, like the best war stories, has a happy ending — albeit one that does not forget the tiny ‘fallen soldier’ who was unable to win through.
Allowing readers heart-racing, adrenalin-pumping access to this often shrouded world — a realm of nightmare and wonder, “peril and reprieve”, but also extraordinary kindness, generosity, dedication and love — this is the story of the 56 days Segal’s daughters spent in the NICU, the “mother ship”... To linger in this liminal world of medicine and miracles, of “almost-children” who need to be “grown . . . into babies”, is to see the beginning of life from a different perspective. Tempering this, however, is the celebration of love and human fortitude that lies at the heart of the book... Transcendent, moving, but thoughtful and necessary too, Mother Ship is its own miraculous achievement.
The themes that emerge are universally urgent. Throughout, there are observations on the strengths and limitations of the NHS. The care in their London hospital is medically exemplary but emotionally so cold as to be almost cruel. Doctors are elusive and it takes days before Segal and her husband are given an explanation of what’s to follow... It’s also a book about luck, and how misguided we are to take it for granted... This process of coming to understand provisionality and struggle takes place, crucially, in a community. Indeed, Segal’s implicit argument is that communal kindness is as important as expensive, skilful but coldly administered medicine in making life livable, even in moments of medical crisis. The book is as much Segal’s love letter to the solidarity of the hospital “milking shed” as to her daughters and husband... I cried many times while reading it, more often because I was moved than sad. Segal has found a way to record love without sentimentality: love that enables the exhausted, underpaid nurses and the shattered, frightened mothers to survive.