Reading Resolution: “Before She Sleeps” by Bina Shah

5. A book written in South Asia: Before She Sleeps by Bina Shah

List Progress: 24/30

Feminist Dystopias are an intriguing little subgenre of speculative fiction. What is it about these ideas that lead authors, mostly female, to concoct elaborate fantasy worlds where things are worse off for women then they already are? I think it’s about easy answers. It is perversely comforting to imagine a world with clearly-defined rules, identifiable people at fault, and the possibility of escape into the wilderness or off the grid. We want a simple evil we can hold in our hands, instead of the complex web we are caught in. Before She Sleeps, a dystopian novel by Pakistani author Bina Shah, tries to offer that simple evil, but goes a bit too far in the simplicity of it all.

Before She Sleeps takes place in Green City, an isolated South Asian metropolis that is one of the few places left after a series of wars, plagues and disasters decimated the region. “The Virus” swept through the land and targeted women, so the population is hugely disproportionate and The Agency enacted The Gender Emergency generations back. Every woman in Green City is assigned multiple husbands, and is expected to always be pregnant or trying to become pregnant, in an effort to restabilize the population. Our main narrator Sabine witnessed her mother fall victim to this system, and thus as a teenager escaped to The Panah, an underground sanctuary of rebellious women. But in order to survive, the Panah must leverage their one asset, offering (supposedly non-sexual) intimacy to powerful men in secret. The exclusive attention of a woman has become a prized resource and one that the women of the Panah can trade for their freedom.

It’s an interesting premise, and you can see why Shah was attracted to this idea: targeting how some men do not just want to live with or by women, but to own them and their attentions. But the world and plot that Shah creates to hold this premise up is flimsy at best. When Sabine has a medical emergency and is cut off from the Panah, the whole subversive system is thrown into disarray, and it becomes baffling that this group ever survived in the first place. No one acts logically, huge assumptions are made that are only right by the will of the narrative, and important characters are introduced late in the novel only for everyone to trust them immediately. 

One of the most galling moments was when a character reflects on the goodness, trustworthiness, and concealed nobility of a character she had had exactly one hurried conversation with. The audience knows that he is all of those things, but she has absolutely no reason to feel that way, except that the plot requires her to trust him in that moment. This is the most obvious of several such moments, and each one gritted my teeth a little more.

The conclusion of Before She Sleeps is abrupt enough to leave things open for a sequel, but this is not a world I will be returning to. The pacing is quick and pulpy, and I was enjoying myself at first, but the coincidences and contrivances just piled up as events went on and I lost patience. A good premise that didn’t have the structure to hold it up.

Would I Recommend It: Unfortunately no.

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