I was lucky to be introduced to Meg Elison’s work (specifically The Book of the Unnamed Midwife) last month. It was quirky, imaginative, and, in my opinion, novel (haha! Get it?). The book tells the post-apocalyptic tale of an unnamed, bisexual woman–a nurse–who wakes up alone in a hospital, after having survived a plague that killed most of the women in the world. The plague also had another nasty effect–it killed the babies as they were being born. Worse yet, it didn’t go away, and woman who survived the initial infection mostly died if they got pregnant (along with the child). Yes, it’s a grim idea. But the world in this series gets worse. Not only do we have this world-ending virus to deal with, but evidently 99 percent of the men who survived are dirtbags and rapists. Even the group of devout, fundamentalist Christians (LDS) eventually turned to child rape. That part of the tale was a little heavy-handed, and to be honest led to some eye-rolling moments for me.
So, you might get the idea that I didn’t like and don’t recommend The Book of the Unnamed Midwife, but that isn’t true. I did like the book (with the exception of the things spelled out above), and I do recommend it. It’s dark. I like dark. It’s also well written, interesting, and I couldn’t wait to get back to it when I was taking a break from reading.
Almost right away, the protagonist figures out that if she wants to survive traveling across the country alone, she’d better pretend to be a man. She binds her breasts, speaks in a lower register, puts grit on her face to mimic a 5 o’clock shadow, etc. She mostly pulls it off, and she travels across the country trying to buy female slaves from wretched examples of manhood. She distributes contraceptives as a life-saving measure. She is broken by what she sees and does.
The author treats her as a man when she is pretending to be a man, which can be confusing in the beginning, and you might find yourself wondering: “He? Who is he?” but it becomes clear in short order that the “he” is the Unnamed. I get what the author is trying to do there, but it brings to mind something an editor once told me: “It’s okay for the character to be confused, but it’s never okay for the reader to be confused.”
The second book in The Road to Nowhere series is titled The Book of Etta. It tells the tale of a young woman (Etta) who is so enthralled by the myth of the Unnamed Midwife that she longs to emulate her. The book is set about a century after the time of the Unnamed, and in that time, the Unnamed has become kind of a religious figure and men have sunk even lower–flesh traders in addition to rapists. Etta wants to be like the Unnamed so badly that she goes so far as to leave the confines of the “safe” town she born in (Nowhere, the town where the Unnamed Midwife ends her tale) to travel the land as a raider. But she doesn’t stop there. She also binds her breasts and pretends to be a man. She travels close to S-T-L (I’ve forgotten how the author spelled it), which is the remains of St. Louis. This is where we run into another mental speed bump — the author continues the practice of mixing pronouns when Etta is pretending to be male but adds to it by using the name Eddy during those parts as well.
Through the course of the tale, we learn things about the world–dark things–and about how people have evolved to deal with the darkness. Etta (as Eddy) has become a murderer in order to steal female slaves and bring them back to Nowhere. Others have taken even more extreme steps, such as harvesting female steroids from horses, running vast empires of fear, building societies where women never speak, etc. I don’t want to give too much away, as there are some real twists in this second book, but the Mormons return, sort of.
There are some neat ideas and neat expansions on the themes established in the first book. This is one of the only books I can think of, in which the author deals with small facts like rubber tires, ammunition (even if she missed the target in part of it), etc.
Again, I’d say read this one. It’s likely you will enjoy it.