An autobiographical novel

Charlotte van Katwijk guards herself like a secret. Kids are cruel, and she knows if they find out she’s adopted, she’ll be a bully’s easy target.

When they are fourteen, Charlotte’s best friend’s mom commits suicide. It triggers in Charlotte a sense of urgency to find her birth mother before it’s too late, and the answers to her burning questions are taken to the grave.

Seven years later, a tormented Charlotte comes face to face with her past. Will discovering more about her biological parents, and the circumstances surrounding her relinquishment, be enough to lay her demons to rest?

Umbilicus by Paula Gruben is a coming-of-age story set in Durban, South Africa, during the dying days of apartheid. The tumultuous zeitgeist of the era mirrors the inner turmoil of an angst-ridden adolescent as she grapples to form an identity and find her place in the world.


Paula Gruben is a professional writer, born and bred in South Africa, now based in Ireland.

She was relinquished as a newborn in 1974, under the highly secretive closed adoption system, which was common practice for young, unwed mothers at the time.

Paula had a happy, carefree childhood, but knowing virtually nothing about her biological roots resulted in a crippling identity crisis during her teenage years, manifesting in all forms of anti-social and self-destructive behaviour, and ultimately a deeply dysfunctional relationship with her adoptive parents.

When she turned 21 in 1995, Paula was granted access to her file at the Durban Child and Family Welfare Society, which had facilitated the adoption. She met her birth mother shortly thereafter, and her birth father three years later. The seed for writing a book about her remarkable adoption journey was planted, but then life took over.

It was only when faced with the shock of an unplanned pregnancy, just before turning 36 in 2010, that Paula could fully empathise with what both her birth mother and adoptive mother must’ve gone through at the time she entered their lives. The seed started germinating at a frantic pace and, armed with the wisdom of age, Paula knew it was finally time to tell the story.

Umbilicus is her debut novel.

Making a memoir


Click here to view a selection of photos showing the real-life characters central to Paula’s adoption story.


Click here to see the music that Paula was listening to during the period this story unfolds, 1991 – 1995.

FAQ + Interviews

Click here for a collection of the most frequently asked questions Paula has answered over the years regarding her adoption experience and writing process. And here for excerpts from several interviews containing further insights into both topics.

What the critics say

The emotions and experiences are painfully – and sometimes joyfully – written across the pages. Once you finish reading, it’s difficult to let Charlotte go. The book is written in such a way that you feel connected to the story and the characters woven through it. Charlotte’s young voice, with a typical KZN accent, is one you easily grow to love. It would appeal primarily to young adults, but it is certainly a book that anyone experiencing an aspect of adoption should let each family member read. As it is a true story wrapped in fiction, the information shared is entirely factual, and one can learn a tremendous amount. However, because it is written in a fictitious voice, it is an easy and gripping read too. This is a remarkable debut novel from a very talented writer who will certainly become a very powerful South African voice.


A bittersweet, well-crafted, inspirational read, written with incredible sensitivity, and guaranteed to spark some kind of conversation. If you’ve adopted a child, or you’re an adoptee, this is maybe something that you want to discuss around the dinner table.


Easy-to-read, emotive and real, Umbilicus is a thought-provoking autobiographical novel that gives a glimpse into what life is like for an adopted child, and the mixed emotions that come along with it.

Glamour Magazine

Click here to view dozens more testimonials from readers around the world.

Paperback + Kindle

Umbilicus is available on six continents in both ebook and eco-friendly, print-on-demand paperback editions.

You don’t need a dedicated e-reader device to enjoy the digital version. You can simply download the FREE Kindle app  available on iOS, Android, Mac, and PC  and read it on your phone, tablet, or desktop.

Click here for a list of popular online bookstores.