As The Book of the Unnamed Midwife opens, a plague of fever has ravaged earth’s population, killing most of the men and almost all the women. There is no power, no gas and no water. Gangs of men roam the streets, looking for women to share and enslave. Babies are all born dead; most mothers die soon after birth from the fever.
A midwife survives the fever and wakes in a hospital, surrounded by dead bodies. Slowly she attempts to make sense of the new world and tries to find a way to survive.
What I thought of it
I loved it, I couldn’t put it down. At its core it is a story of survival and I kept reading because I just had to know – does she survive? How does the dwindling population start to increase again?
Be warned, it’s fairly bleak – this is a true dystopian novel, the kind where almost everyone dies and the worst excesses of human nature are revealed.
However, there is also great hope. The Book of the Unnamed Midwife takes its name from the premise – the prologue explains that this account of the post-plague world was first recorded by The Unnamed Midwife and is now being copied by scribes in the future. Clearly someone has survived and managed to procreate.
The book explores gender roles at great length – woman as victim of all men, woman as ruler of all men; man as predator, man as protector, and many shades in between. Survival and procreation are held up as the central purpose of life – which, in a base biological sense, is really all there is.
Throughout the novel runs a commentary on the boundaries of science and technology. Even with the best of medical researchers and technology at their fingertips, humans could not figure out what the plague was, nor how to cure – or even contain – it. Towards the end it borders on being anti-science, which I personally found a little grating, though in keeping with the story.
The narrative jars a little in a couple of places. It’s constructed as diaries written by the unnamed midwife over a period of several years after the plague first hits. The midwife incorporates first-person accounts from other survivors. However, there are sections where we are suddenly taken thousands of kilometres away from the midwife to be told what happened to other characters, what happened on a global scale or in individual cities or countries. While it’s nice to have this omnipotent viewpoint, it makes no sense in the context of the narrative. To be fair, I ‘read’ this as an audiobook, so it’s possible there was a visual cue that made these interludes more integrated.
Readers of dystopian fiction will enjoy this. Also anyone who’s ever wondered what life would look like if all the women were suddenly gone. It’s in a similar vein to P.D. James’ Children of Men or possibly Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale.