On writing, Other Stuff

BOOK REVIEW: UMBILICUS: PAULA GRUBEN: A brave tale of discovery and identity


The term ‘umbilicus’, otherwise known as the belly button is the point of attachment for the umbilical cord to the embryo. Everyone has one. Everyone was once tied to a woman who gave them life- their birth mother. But not everyone has the privilege of knowing who that is. And that must be agonizing.

I always think of belly buttons like the tied bit at the end of a balloon. When my toddlers would ask , ‘wazzat Muuum’, I’d say,  ‘it was how you were attached to me in my tummy and if the doctor didn’t tie it properly when you were born, when he cut it you would go ‘bithhhhh’ and deflate like a balloon’.

Paula Gruben’s autobiographical novel, entitled Umbilicus is the true story of a brave young adopted teenage girl who suffers the so- called ‘primal wound’ of not knowing her true origins and her quest to find her birth mother.

The story opens with the fraught and somewhat hostile interaction between Charlotte (the author’s name for herself in this work of fiction based on true events) and her adoptive mother when she fears she may herself be pregnant at 16. Charlotte contemplates whether she is not merely history repeating itself and sets the scene perfectly for readers to understand the mindset of a young rebellious teen.

At the same time, I could already feel the fear and sadness of her adoptive mother who must have battled to deal with her own issues of desperately wanting a relationship with a daughter which she could not give birth to herself.

Writing from the unusual second person point of view of Charlotte made me more empathetic to the agony of her journey. Paula writes with ease and her descriptions and characterizations make her story so real. Her dialogue passages read easily too and I breezed through her story in a few short hours.

What’s so fulfilling about this story was how we, as readers, get to see all points of view in the complicated triad of adoption. First with Charlotte, whose teenage years were certainly so traumatized with the stigma of being adopted and her resultant determination to understand and find her roots, then her birth mother’s agonizing story of how and why she decided that adoption was best for Charlotte and finally, a perspective from her adoptive mother.

Throughout the book, I found myself questioning and challenging my own feelings in order to understand the mindset of each of this tragic triad in turn. While initially I felt anger towards a mother who could willingly give up her own flesh and blood, (understanding and acknowledging that no-one travels another’s journey) Paula’s telling of her story made me understand how absolutely agonizing it must have been for her birth mother to know that her daughter was out there somewhere. And for Charlotte, to have had to wait until 21 for her to be reunited with the mother who gave birth to her.

I do have to say though that I felt sad in many ways for the mother and father who were clearly so terrified of their efforts as loving, adoptive parents being undermined or disregarded by Charlotte when she found her birth mother and that it couldn’t happen that the process of being reunited with her birth mom was something they could have embarked on together.

Apart from readers who are one of the adoption triad, I believe Umbilicus is important and relevant for many other readers out there: for young adults who are too young to appreciate and understand the intricacies and long- term effects of unplanned pregnancies and the lives that follow; and for mothers of teenage children who have the ultimate privilege of motherhood to nurture and care and support their children who are going through trying and sometimes terrifying teenage years.

Finally I have to say that the book was more meaningful for me because I had travelled some of Paula’s writing journey with her and could relate to her undeterred determination to get her story out and into the world.

The South African world of indie- publishing is not easy and she has rocked it!

Those docs and frocks certainly paved the way for you Paula! Onwards and upwards! xx




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