Saturday, October 15, 2016

The Book of the Unnamed Midwife

The Book of the Unnamed Midwife by Meg Elison
47North: 10/11/16
eBook review copy; 300 pages
ISBN-13: 9781503939110

The Book of the Unnamed Midwife by Meg Elison is a very highly recommended plague/post-apocalyptic novel that held my rapt attention from start to finish.

Society has fallen apart. A disease, a plague of Biblical proportions, has stricken the world. It’s likely autoimmune, but nothing seems to stop it: "No antibiotic. No interferon. No anti-inflammatory, no sedative, no emetic, nothing. Nothing touches this once it starts." This has resulted in the death of 98% of the world's men, but it has been even more devastatingly fatal to women and children. It seemingly targets women and children. Childbirth is deadly for both mother and baby, but always for the baby.

An unnamed woman, a labor and delivery nurse in San Francisco who toiled in vain to try to save women and babies during the height of the plague before she became ill, wakes up in the hospital, alive, with no survivors around her. She knows who she is, where she is, and that she has survived the illness, but has no idea how long she was sick or what day it is. She makes it home, realizing that the world has changed since her illness. The first person she encounters is a man who breaks into her apartment that first night and tries to brutally rape her.

"When the sirens quit, the rules gave out. Some people had been waiting their whole lives to live lawlessly, and they were the first to take to the streets. Some people knew that would happen; they knew better than to open their doors when they heard cries of help. Others didn’t. What disease cannot do, people accomplish with astonishing ease."

Our heroine quickly learns that being a woman is a dangerous proposition in this new world where women are very rare and are captured to become sex slaves for gangs of men. Even men who might be allies don't want a woman with them because it makes them targets for the gangs who aren't as civilized. She makes the life-saving decision to shave her head, wear a chest binder, and dress like a man. When she meets anyone, she gives them a false name. We never learn her real name, which she guards closely, a secret piece of her that she keeps to herself.

She finds a gun and arms herself, which wasn't easy in California. Because of her experiences as a nurse, she collects medical supplies, especially birth control because if she meets any women this can save their lives. As she makes her way north and then east, she sees women chained as slaves, used as a commodity (sex) for trading goods, and brutally used and abused by their captors. She has to kill men trying to capture her. Long portions of her time are spent alone, although she saved and travel with another woman for a while. She meets some survivors. Most importantly is that she manages to stay alive in this new world.

The novel is partly written as journal entries, and as such the language is very informal, just as it would be if you were writing something for yourself. In the opening we know that young scribes in the future are being charged with making a copy of this journal, so it is startling to see the stark difference between the formal language in the opening followed by the language of the journal entries. 

The Book of the Unnamed Midwife is a gritty, harsh, raw story. Elison tells it like it would very likely be in this scenario. Nothing is sugar coated. There are no safe places for a woman. If you have ever felt that society tends toward the misogynistic now, then this is what happens when there are no filters or restraints. I was hooked from the beginning mention of the plague and read it straight through. Sure I lost some sleep but this is one post-apocalyptic tale that is worthy of the time. It is realistic, thought provoking, brutal. After reading it, I have been thinking about it, pondering parts of it, for days, and that, my friends, says it all. Deservedly, it won the 2014 Philip K. Dick Award Winner for Distinguished Science Fiction.

There is a part two, The Book of Etta, due to be released in February 2017.

Disclosure: My advanced reading copy was courtesy of the publisher/author.

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