The AlternativeBy Rodney Hyde-Thompson (Paperback Library; 1972)

This British novel is packaged like one of the innumerable horror potboilers that debuted in the early 1970s (complete with an imposing front cover reference to ROSEMARY’S BABY), but it’s actually a far more thoughtful and intellectual work. The subject is ostensibly an Englishman who inexplicably comes to display the symptoms of his wife’s pregnancy–a swelling belly, sudden mood swings, odd cravings–but its true concerns are with the changing gender roles created by the sexual revolution.

The protagonist is Herman, a semi-successful graphic artist. All initially seems to be well with Herman and his wife Jo, but tension gradually manifests itself in the form of concerns about the fact that, in a reversal of traditional husband-wife parlance, Jo is the breadwinner. Those concerns only grow more acute after Jo becomes pregnant.

As stated above, it’s Herman who undergoes all the problems of birth while Jo experiences none of them. Yet Jo’s doctor claims the baby is doing just fine in her belly, while a psychiatrist diagnoses Herman with an obscure psychological disorder, and promises that his pregnancy symptoms will go away once Jo gives birth. This situation proves quite taxing for both characters, driving them to near-madness and putting an intolerable strain on the marriage.

The reasons for Herman and Jo’s unique situation are never satisfactorily explained, as the whole thing is metaphoric above all else. Then there’s the prose, which is quite dense, and contained in bulky paragraphs that are anything but reader-friendly. This, in conjunction with the overly contained, one-note narrative and frequent screeds about early-1970s British politics, gives the novel an extremely lugubrious feel despite its short 190 page length. Then there’s the “shock” ending, which may have been horrifying back in 1972 but nowadays seems comedic–though not nearly enough so to justify slogging through the preceding 189 pages.