I’m going to be haunted by The Book of the Unnamed Midwife, I just know it. Meg Elison’s dark tale of a virus that kills women and children, and the terrifying world that it leaves behind, is disturbing and compelling, as well as completely brutal.
The initial set-up is disorienting, in the style of all good dystopias; a group of young boys, instructed by a woman wearing a wooden imitation of a pregnant belly, begins to copy out the titular Book, for reasons that aren’t entirely clear. As the Midwife’s story begins, the reader is thrust straight into a terrifying approximation of present-day San Francisco, as the protagonist is forced to fight off an anonymous attacker in her home; the subsequent struggle and violent death set the scene for a story in which aggression lurks around every corner and nobody is really safe.
The Midwife swiftly realises that, in a time when women are becoming an endangered species, being one is far too perilous, and she adopts a male persona as a means of survival. The character’s struggle to retain a sense of her own identity as a result is present throughout the book, in the diary entries she writes and the third person narrative which becomes more omniscient as the story progresses. The problems the Midwife faces will be familiar to any viewer of The Walking Dead: raiding homes and stores for supplies; negotiating her safety on the occasions when she encounters other people, and the terrifying depths people sink to when all seems to be lost. It’s a book that kept me on edge throughout, desperate to see the Midwife find safety.
If I am ever to write my own novel, I think it might be a post-apocalyptic epic in which women actually survive; not because I’m a raving misandrist, but because the future always seems particularly bleak for one gender more than the other when writers imagine a society in crisis. The Book of the Unnamed Midwife presents a harrowing picture of women on chains, locked in cupboards and traded for drugs; although the Midwife avoids much of the potential horror by passing as a man, the reader is subjected to some awful scenarios, some of which are quite difficult to read. There are parallels with The Handmaid’s Tale and Charlotte Wood’s The Natural Way of Things, as well as the zombie apocalypse of The Walking Dead.
I assume that the book, having been originally published in 2014, is being republished in advance of the sequel’s release in early 2017; I’ll definitely be on the look-out for that, because clearly I love reading things that scare the shit out of me.