Did you ever imagine needing to think about where to find tampons during the apocalypse? No? How about needing birth control since there are roving bands of gun-toting men ready to capture women for sex slaves and because the very plague that took out most of the world’s population still affects women during childbirth? What about boredom? Have you thought about how bored you’ll be when the only radio station repeats a suspicious call to head south to Mexico? What if you finally found a companion and all they want to talk about is their favorite TV shows?
Welcome to the world of Meg Elison’s Book of the Unnamed Midwife,a Philip K. Dick Award nominee.
It’s pretty horrible to be a woman in Elison’s near future.
In fact, our butch, bisexual heroine quickly figures out “woman = fucked, literally and figuratively.” She spends the rest of the novel cross-dressing as a man.
The story writing itself has some interesting narrative quirks, some of which I found more tolerable than others. One I didn’t mind because it’s a standard science fiction trope: a frame – a sort of “over story” that only appears at the very beginning and end. The frame in this story is a few scenes of a mysterious, far future place where young men are being allowed to transcribe copies of the Book of the Unnamed Midwife, which we quickly go into and discover is a woman’s diary.
Like a diary, the point of view of that narrative is the first person, “I.” Thus, our heroine is unnamed.
Occasionally and quite randomly, Elison shifts into a more traditional third, “she/he.” When we get these shifts into third person, presumably we’re stepping out of time and experiencing a moment that the transcribers can’t really have experienced. During those times, our heroine thinks of herself as whatever fake name she’s currently using.
I’m glad Elison uses this trick because the diary writer keeps very brisk, sketchy entries which are very in keeping with the character’s voice, but which are full the above pattern of “something = something else,” which I thought cute = at first, later = less so.
Even though the Book of the Unnamed Midwife is very dark and full of much of humanity’s underbelly, I ended up enjoying the book – entirely due to the tough-as-nails heroine. I found the unnamed midwife to be capable – always compelling and, frankly, sexy. I don’t know how perfectly Elison considered every real-life problem of a collapsing society, but I ended up happily carried along for the ride and the travelogue of our heroine’s adventures through this imagined after-the-fall.
This is not, however, a book for the faint of heart.
Nor, possibly, for Mormons.1
The Church of the Later Day Saints gets a bit of a send up in this book. I found it funny/horrible/sweet, but mileage may vary. ↩