book reviews by Althea

The Book of the Unnamed Midwife – Meg Elison ***

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The Book of the Unnamed Midwife
The Book of the Unnamed Midwife by Meg Elison
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Upon reading this, I was immediately reminded of PD James’ ‘Children of Men’ – after all, how many stories are there which feature a near-future in which universal sterility has afflicted humanity, with the exception of one solitary pregnant woman, who is escorted through a dangerous journey by a former professional midwife? Well, there are at least two!

However, by happenstance, my post-apocalyptic book club was reading ‘Children of Men’ this month, so a re-read it after about two decades. (Which was interesting, thoughts here:…) The two stories are far more different than I’d immediately realized, treating their themes in very different ways.

While James used the sterility as a jumping off point for a musing on faith and the corrupting nature of power, Elison is far more concerned with gender issues. ‘The Book of the Unnamed Midwife’ lets us know right off that the post-apocalyptic future is matriarchal, with women in charge, and pregnancy revered – perhaps even worshiped. This future society, still struggling, looks to an ‘ancient’ text as history and guide. This text is the diary of the title’s ‘midwife.’ And from there, we jump into said diary…

The midwife wakes after illness to a changed world. A plague (which she’d been researching) has wiped out nearly all of humanity. Survivors are few and far between – but only 1 out of 100 survivors are women. On top of that, no new babies are being born. The illness is particularly fatal to babies, and it seems that even if a woman has survived, she will definitely die if she becomes pregnant and attempts to give birth. Soon, it’s a world of lawless thugs and dangerous gangs where the few women are viewed as commodities to be bought, sold and of course, gang-raped. To protect herself, our narrator disguises herself as a man, and wanders the post-apocalyptic landscape, trying to find other women and to help them with knowledge – and birth control – when she can.

The writing is very good – I found the book riveting, even though the plot was rather meandering. However, once I took a step back from the direct experience of reading it, I did have some criticism. My main one does have to do with the rather aimless meandering. In the introduction, we’re given a “Point B.” Then, we flash back to “Point A.” However, the book never takes us from Point A to Point B. How did a world of women as abused commodities transform into the matriarchal society of respected women that we first glimpse? Yes, the ‘midwife’ sees in passing, the emergence of ‘hives’ – groups of men who cluster around one “Queen Bee” in hopes of her favor, but that phenomenon isn’t really deeply explored by the text. The main character finds this mildly interesting, but not something she’s interested in pursuing for herself. While I did find the wanderings interesting, I feel like the book set the reader up to expect something that it never delivered.

My other quibbles probably just have to do with my reading so much post-apocalyptic fiction, and seeing the same themes crop up over and over: the aimless journey, the pockets of religious groups who may hold it together longer, but who might get weirdly cultlike, & the future characterized by violent gangs and violence toward women. In some stories, this treatment can often feel somewhat misogynist, but in this book swung toward the misandrist. Actually, with few exceptions, humans in this book are really portrayed as falling into negative stereotypes. Men are either violent oppressors, or weak and ineffectual. But other women are also portrayed as self-interested backstabbers. I don’t think of myself as having a particularly sunny view of human nature, but this book exceeded even my cynicism. Again, I wish that it had taken the reader a bit further, through the days of disaster and into the days of rebuilding and cooperation.

Still, regardless of its flaws, this is still a book that I would recommend – and have recommended – to other fans of post-apocalyptic fiction.

Many thanks to 47North and NetGalley for the opportunity to read. As always, my opinions are solely my own.

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