Joanna Kavenna’s new novel can be truly described as a labour of love, since much of it was written just after she had given birth. “I started writing it when my first child was about six weeks old. There is that period when they go to sleep on your lap a lot, so you sit incredibly still, not wanting to move, and I would take a notebook and start to write,” she explained.

By the time it was finished, three years later, she had become a mother again, this time to daughter Blythe, now two.

The Birth of Love follows four different stories taking place during one day in August, but spanning three centuries.

Ignaz Semmelweis is an obstetrician in 19th-century Vienna fighting to convince medical colleagues that the deadly epidemic of puerperal sepsis (childbed fever) among new mothers could be prevented by the simple act of washing hands.

Fast forward to the present day, where middle-aged writer Michael Stone is marking the launch of his novel about Dr Semmelweis, a joyless event because of his insecurity and ambiguous feelings towards his mother.

Just a few miles away, pregnant Brigid Hayes goes into labour and finds events taking an unexpected turn.

Finally, more than 100 years into the future, we glimpse a chilling scenario where women are forcibly sterilised at 18, after having their eggs harvested, and babies are cultivated in laboratories.

These apparently disparate strands are painstakingly pulled together by a running thread that examines our attitudes towards truth and falsehood. Gigantic themes are tackled here — not least the mystique of childbirth and the often ambivalent relationship between mother and child.

Kavenna started to think about this while pregnant with her son, Merlin, now three-and-a-half. “The experience of pregnancy and the early months was what inspired me. It is interesting to write about change in a character and you never alter as much as when you are pregnant,” she said.

“Both physically and mentally, you are trying to grapple with what has been happening to you. The astonishing process where you birth a child is just the most extraordinary, magical, crazy, exhausting, painful, wonderful experience. I wanted to write about that.”

It is her second novel, the first, Inglorious, having netted her the Orange award for new writers. Kavenna puts a stick of dynamite under the idea that certainty is always a good thing, or that doubt is the curse of a weak mind. Her flowing prose softens the uncomfortable questions she poses about how being convinced of the rightness of something can easily slide into dogmatism.

“Semmelweis’s medical colleagues think they are trying to help women, but actually they are blinded by their own certainty,” she pointed out.

“I was quite interested in why people are so certain of things, even though later they are proved to be wrong.” She and her partner, crime thriller writer Tom Martin, have just swapped central Oxford for bucolic bliss near Steeple Aston, which she hopes her children will enjoy.

“It is quite idyllic. I grew up in a village and remember it very fondly, building dens in hedges, so it will be nice for them to have that.”

But her links with Oxford remain strong. She was recently appointed as St Peter’s College's first writer-in-residence and previously held a writing fellowship at St Antony’s and completed a doctorare in poetry at Linacre College. “I love Oxford. I moved around a bit when I was growing up and travelled a lot in my twenties, so it has always felt like my adult home. My partner grew up and studied here and has family nearby.”

The other major theme running through The Birth of Love is time; how the past relates to the present and the future. “What you feel with birth is the sense of the ages, in that you are just one in a long line of many generations. When you have a child, you become more interested in your ancestors because you understand that you are creating the future. You are suddenly more aware of it, because you think of your child’s life and what will happen.

“That was why I wanted to include a futuristic narrative in the book; to have some sense that it all continues, on and on.”

* The Birth of Love is published by Faber at £12.99.