Cathy and Noah are happily married. They had an understanding at the beginning of the relationship that it would be a childless one, but eight years later, Cathy is unsure about this decision.
Second Self is Ashby’s second novel and within it is a plethora of life. We are faced with death, love, loss, ageing, personal and societal pressures on women as well as mothering and the need to be mothered.
There are several triggers that propel Cathy into a spiral of indecision over whether her choice to not have children was the right one. When she misses her period, she realises that she is disappointed when it arrives. Another trigger occurs when her best friend Anna announces her own pregnancy, her feelings towards motherhood are stirred once more. But for every event that makes her ponder, there is an occasion that makes her draw back and decide that maybe it was the right decision. An example of this is when Cathy and Noah are on a flight back home from a gloriously relaxing, impromptu holiday in Venice, and their peace is interrupted by a wailing child on the aeroplane. Cathy begins to wonder how the trip would have gone had they had their own child, and quickly concludes it would have been too hard and with this realisation, she experiences a sense of relief.
Even though Cathy notes the beauty of their simple life, their very content life, she cannot exorcise that feeling that she may one day regret their decision, the agreement she had made with Noah. He notes the societal pressures that have been placed on her, like most women, people look at her and wonder when she will have a child. Noah apologises for how hard it must be fore her and that’s part of this situation’s difficulty; Noah is a warm, understanding, loving man who has a deep-rooted reason for not wanting a child. But it keeps coming back to the fact that there are numerous pressures Cathy is struggling to overcome, she believes that, ‘If a man doesn’t have a child, people don’t think of his life as incomplete… His happiness isn’t bound by family. There’s no social obligation.’
As we watch Cathy and Noah’s relationship change and indecisiveness root itself within their marriage, Cathy’s mother whom she is very close to, begins to experience memory loss. It is heart-breaking as she loses her own mother in this way, but this plot cleverly works as an extension of how the story is cloaked by uncertainty. All the edges are blurred, and we can never see far ahead.
Cathy is a conservationist, she asserts that it is not her job to return the painting to its former self but to ‘put the brakes on its aging process,’ and as she chips away at the painting, she slowly reveals the painting’s true nature, where something entirely different lurks beneath. Ashby writes beautifully, sensitively, and bravely about the decisions women must face, but also the realities of what happens when those decisions are taken out of your hands.