Sunday, October 16, 2016

The Book of the Unnamed Midwife

Title:  The Book of the Unnamed Midwife (The Road to Nowhere)
Author:  Meg Elison
Publication Information:  47North. 2014 (original). 300 pages.
ISBN:  1503939111 / 978-1503939110

Book Source:  I received this book as a publisher's galley through NetGalley free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "Mother Ina tapped her fingers on her hollow wooden belly."

Favorite Quote:  "Nobody chooses to be a victim, but after a lifetime of practice, it just happens."

The title - The Book of the Unnamed Midwife - has a positively medieval ring. The beginning of the book is medieval in tone. Young male scribes taken care of by "mothers" are set the task of copying by hand this book. The beginning is atmospheric and sets up the anticipation for what is to come.

So, what is the Book? The book is a set of nineteen journals written by an unnamed female survivor of a plague that wipes out about 98% of humanity and within that number 99% of all women. Very few people are left, and within that number, the ratio of men to women is disproportionate. This sets the tone for the themes of the book. Who are these women? What is their value in this society? How will humanity survive? Who is to be pro-creator of a rebirth? All important questions not matter what the time period of the book.

This post apocalyptic story is not medieval in the least. It begins in modern day San Francisco, where our lead character - let's call her Midwife - works at a hospital. The plague / virus  / disease comes, and she wakes up to an altered world. The name of the book and the fact that the journals appear to be revered by a new society imply that Midwife perhaps becomes in part responsible for the survival of society; perhaps major events connect the destruction of the plague to this new society; and perhaps the Midwife's Book contains the wisdom gained from this history.

Unfortunately, the book does not built to that climax; it doesn't build to anything much at all. As with The Dog Stars by Peter Heller and Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel, the question comes down to one of survival. Unlike those books, though, the story does not read as one of hope; Midwife's trek is a dark and violent one. For the most part, lawlessness is paramount in this world. In a world where women have become rare, they are not revered; rather, the women are turned into prized possessions. Midwife disguises herself as a man to escape notice. Keeping along with that theme, there is rape and violence against women and a lot of discussion of searches for weapons for both protection and destruction.

The book also becomes repetitive. Midwife travels alone, joining up with and then leaving a variety of pockets of survivors - a couple watching out for each other, a biker gang, and a Morman community to name a few of her encounters. She meets up with other survivors. She wants companionship. For a while, it works. Then, something triggers a departure. Repeat. The specifics differ, but the scenario repeats again and again, leaving me waiting for something more. Included with the Midwife's tale are some stories of other survivors, but these too are unsavory and violent. Since the focus of the book remains on Midwife, the role of these other stories seems simply to add to the despair; they are just dropped into place with nothing more coming of them.

Midwife herself is unfortunately not a likable character. Perhaps, it is intentional, but the character comes across as somewhat robotic. Perhaps that is a reaction to her situation, but the book needs to explain that and let the reader peek behind that monotone front. It does not. As a result, this book becomes difficult to engage with because in a book about death and destruction, I need a character whose survival I care about. Unfortunately, in this book, I just don't.

Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

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