Book 12 on this month’s 12 in 12 Challenge has been hanging around on my Kindle for a few years. I am positive that I must have bought it in one of the 99p sales that Amazon puts on regularly to test my willpower (I fail every time). It is a dystopian novel set after a great earth event has wiped out most of the population, a theme which is popular among novelists. Good books which I have read previously in this genre include On the Beach, Station Eleven, The Children of Men, The Day of the Triffids and The Road.
The Book of the Unnamed Midwife by Meg Elison assumes that the majority of the population has been killed by a disease which especially targets women and unborn children. Our heroine, the midwife, wakes up in hospital having recovered from this illness. While she has been unconscious everyone has left or has died and she finds herself alone. Realising that her gender will make her a target she dresses as a man and sets out on a journey. We are never quite sure where she is going and neither is she but it seems like it is something to do. Her mission along the way is to protect the few women who have survived and especially those who are of child bearing age as they very often die with their newly born children.
This book is told in three ways. Firstly, it is framed by glimpses of a society in which young boys are tasked with copying out and learning the diary that the midwife leaves. Secondly, we have the diary itself which forms the major part of the book and carries the story. The diary also includes excerpts from the diaries and writings of other survivors that the midwife meets on her journey. The third element is a narrator who fills in the global perspective and tells us what happens to characters after they disappear from the diary. This mixture works well although I wish that the diary hadn’t been represented in an italic font on my Kindle as I found it quite difficult to read, although it separates the sections well.
The author shows us, through the midwife’s journey, some of the different approaches to the shortage of women. Some of them are brutal, as you would expect, and most are inevitable. We also see how women carry on trying to have babies even when all the babies die and usually the mother perishes too. The midwife understands that these things will happen and she has a dispassionate reaction to them and moves on when people won’t accept her help. Some of the book makes for uncomfortable reading although I can’t say that the author is wrong in how she thinks people will react and what they will do – she makes it all very believable.
The character of the midwife is an interesting one and quite unusual, I think. She has lost the love of her life who she thinks has left her believing that she is dead and she feels that she has lost herself. She gives of herself to those she meets but at no time does she ever reveal her name; this is her essential self which she doesn’t want to share. She is lonely but finds it difficult to connect with many of those she meets and she is always wary of them. You find yourself wanting a happy ending for her without knowing what that will look like.
I found this book gripping. I totally believed in the midwife character and the landscape in which she moves. I understood many of the actions of those that she meets and the different ways that they structured society. This is the first in a trilogy which will follow women from the same community into the future. I am interested to see what the author will do with the story and the society next.