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book review

Heather Marshall's Looking For Jane is a confident debut that offers a fascinating, often disturbing insight into the state of Canadian women’s reproductive rights in our recent history.Amanda Kopcic/Handout

  • Title: Looking for Jane
  • Author: Heather Marshall
  • Genre: Historical Fiction
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster
  • Pages: 400

A young woman sits alone in an exam room of a Toronto emergency room. Her jeans are soaked with her cousin’s blood, who has been admitted after nearly collapsing on the subway while coming home from a backroom abortion.

Terrified of getting them both in trouble – it is 1979, and procuring and conducting an abortion is still a criminal act – the young woman, named Nancy, is trying to evade a doctor’s questions. She’s already dodged the accusations of a male doctor, who knows perfectly well how a young woman ends up almost hemorrhaging to death because of a perforated organ and has threatened her with the police. When another doctor appears in the doorway, she braces herself for another round of interrogation. Instead, the woman closes the door, explains she’s recording her cousin’s case as a miscarriage and then says something unexpected.

“If you, or a friend, or any other girl close to you ends up pregnant when they don’t want to be, you need to call around to doctors’ offices and ask for Jane,” she says quietly. “Call around, keep asking for Jane, and you’ll eventually get what you need.”

In Looking for Jane, Heather Marshall tells her story using three interwoven timelines.

As the title might suggest, the matter of this “Jane” is central to Looking For Jane, a confident debut that offers a fascinating, often disturbing insight into the state of Canadian women’s reproductive rights in our recent history. If you mistakenly assumed Canada decriminalized abortion roughly around or even before Roe v. Wade, buckle up because a) it didn’t actually happen here until 1988 and b) as with so much of our past, it’s much darker than the halo effect of our (relatively) more progressive present would suggest.

Marshall tells her story using three interwoven timelines: Evelyn, a pregnant teenager in 1960, sent to a maternity home to have her baby on the quiet; the aforementioned Nancy in 1971, who strongly suspects she may have been adopted; and Angela in the present day, undergoing fertility treatments in order to conceive with her partner. The thread that initially ties the three stories together is a decade-old letter that Angela stumbles upon one day, although it quickly becomes clear that there is much more linking these women than just some misdirected mail – and yes, it is “Jane.”

For Evelyn, scarred by a traumatic experience in a maternity home run by nuns who profited from railroading vulnerable girls into giving up their babies for adoption, “Jane” refers not just to the baby she lost, but also to the cause to which she devotes her life: the Jane Network, a clandestine circle of doctors and activists who made safe abortions accessible to women when it was still illegal in Canada. It is here that her story intersects with that of Nancy, who “visits Jane” to have an abortion herself, but later becomes a volunteer in the high-stakes, high-pressure work, risking jail time if discovered. For Angela, connecting with Evelyn years later, “Jane” represents the sacrifices made and tragedies faced by the women who came before her – and also an actual person who’s part of a plot twist toward the end that might just try those with a low tolerance for soap-opera style melodramatic reveals. (It’s clever but so neat it’s a bit … silly?)

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Marshall has a master’s degree in history, and it’s obvious that this book, written in clear, easy-to-read prose, is deeply researched, almost to a fault. At times it suffers from something that often afflicts historical novels, wherein the characters somehow turn up at every relevant major event and experience the extreme of every real-life scenario, to a point where it strains the credulity of even those most willing to suspend their belief for narrative purposes. For example: Not only do the police raid Evelyn’s practice while she’s performing Nancy’s abortion (a scene based on real events), but a few years later they’re together again when another client of “Jane” turns out to be a cop wearing a wire, and they narrowly escape jail time (again, based on something that really happened.) This is not to say that this sequence of events couldn’t (and didn’t) happen to the same two people in real life, but sometimes it’s just a shoehorn-this-anecdote-I-found-in-my-research too far, you know?

Minor faults aside, this is an engaging book that deals sensitively with harrowing topics – adoption, abortion, miscarriage, abuse, suicide – with an emotional intelligence that means nothing ever feels gratuitous, or that real human pain is being exploited for plot’s sake. It is also a timely book, when the pandemic has affected Canadians’ often already limited access to reproductive care and services – and when, despite government promises, no federal legislation exists to actually define equitable access to abortion across Canada. And, as Marshall points out in her afterword, there has been no action on a 2018 committee recommendation that the government issue a formal acknowledgment and apology to the estimated 300,000 mothers who were forced or coerced into giving up their babies in those postwar maternity homes.

In many ways, it would appear we are still, as it were, looking for Jane.

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