20. A debut novel: The Book of the Unnamed Midwife by Meg Elison
List Progress: 6/30
TW: Rape, sexual violence.
Man, this one was a bit of a letdown. The Book of the Unnamed Midwife, the award-winning 2014 debut novel by Meg Elison, seems like it ticks a lot of my boxes: I enjoy post-apocs, I like stories about pregnancy and childbirth, and I have a lot of fond memories of both gendercide story Y: The Last Man and infertility plague story Children of Men. All of that, coming highly recommended, from a female author? I should have been all over this one. But while I was sold on the premises, the execution really fell through for me, and I think the book’s craving to go as dark, gritty and bleak as possible really worked against it.
Unnamed Midwife follows the titular Midwife as she navigates a post-apocalyptic hellscape from immediately after the event to decades after. A global airborne disease has killed at least 98% of the men surviving on the planet, with even fewer women and children surviving, and caused infertility in the surviving women. She is valued in some ways for her medical knowledge as a nurse, but in even more ways as prey for the hordes of ravaging rapists wandering the wastelands, men who appear to have gone feral the moment society broke down. She very quickly realizes that to avoid being raped, tortured, sold into sexual slavery and murdered (which the book shows happening to other women in explicit detail), she needs to disguise herself as a man. She decides to go out of her way to collect birth control to share with the few surviving women that she meets, saving them from dying during inevitable miscarriages, and strikes out on her own.
This book is not for the faint of heart. We’re talking about an explicit rape scene in the second chapter, and I in no way blame anyone who drops out then and there. I kept going, hoping that it was building to some greater theme, but…it doesn’t. Elison’s thesis seems to be that humans suck and society is the only thing keeping men from victimizing women at every turn, and even the good people the Midwife meet seem to be exceptions to the rule. The book tries to tie in some hope about humanity growing again, but if this is the world, then it deserves to end.
Elison even breaks her own format in order to add more pain. The book is told in alternating sections of the Midwife’s journal in the first person, and third person narration tightly focused around the Midwife and in her head. Then seven chapters in, for no real reason, the third person narration shifts to focus on other characters who have parted ways with the Midwife, just to assure the audience that after they rode off into the sunset, they suffered and died terrible deaths. That’s just needless, and since this format is held for the rest of the book, it really should have been established from the beginning.
There are parts that I enjoyed; as frustrating of a ride as it was to get there, I did enjoy the ending. But even beyond the structural issues, I didn’t find the Midwife that compelling of a character. She says that she has this great birth control cause from the beginning, but it doesn’t come up that often until the ending, as she is actively avoiding all human contact, and feels like something that she should have discovered throughout the story instead. She also has some real contempt for more feminine characters than herself, which could be an interesting thread if the narrative ever investigated it, as she associates femininity with danger and vulnerability and strikes out against it, but instead it comes across as some of the writer’s internalized misogyny.
I’m very glad that The Book of the Unnamed Midwife resonated with a lot of people and I think Elison has some great ideas to work with here. But I also think there is a definite aspect to its popularity that feels like “Cinematic Female Suffering, but a woman wrote it so it’s okay.”
Would I Recommend It: No.