Disclaimer: ARC via Netgalley in exchange for a fair and balanced review
In some ways, The Book of the Unnamed Midwife is an alternate view of The Handmaid’s Tale. Perhaps it is even a Handmaid’s Tale produced by today’s world, even though Atwood’s book is still relevant and powerful today. Midwife is both like and unlike Handmaid’s Tale, even while it refers to it. Offred is an unnamed Handmaid (or a male named handmaid; Offred =of Fred), so the Unnamed Midwife in this book, who at times takes a male name, is Offred’s sister and opposite.
The Unnamed Midwife also has a gun. Just saying.
Therefore, the book feels like a cross between the Handmaid’s Tale and Resident Evil, in part because of the gun and how the midwife wakes up to the new dystopia. It’s strange, but it works. Far better than When She Woke, which tried to be a more up to date Handmaid’s Tale and Scarlett Letter.
While the dystopia presented is closer to that of a zombie tale – unknown virus, vast death, lots of smoke - there are no zombies here, at least no zombies in terms of eating brains. The book becomes one of those Road Trip dystopia novels, where the heroine struggles to find a place to be because no place is safe. Like most type of quest tales, there are false starts and stops along the way. What makes the book more than just a rehash of such tales is the character of the Midwife herself. Too often in books such as these, the central character demands the reader’s pity. In the best books, this demand does not happen, and such is the case here. To call the Midwife likable would be a misstatement, but you do end up rooting for her.
The Midwife finds herself in a world decimated by a virus. The virus is also particularly deadly to women, and among women, those who are pregnant. Therefore, the midwife isn’t just out of a job, she is also one of the few surviving women. Hence, the road trip is also a look at how people react to fewer women. In some of the dystopias, in particular, those decimated human population ones, this issue really isn’t examined. One wonders why. Elison readdresses, in part, this omission. The Midwife’s behavior is in part determined by the knowledge that she is one of a few. The story isn’t just about missing food (though there is a brilliant conversation about bananas,) but all the things.
In some ways this landscape does contribute to the weaker aspect of the novel. The behavior of Elison’s characters is real, that isn’t the problem. Like Atwood, Elison uses practices that have historical precedent. It does, though, feel like those women who do not automatically follow everything the Midwife says are punished for that.
The only other flaw in the novel is a change of point of view that occurs in late in the book. The story is told using a frame. The reader is reading the diaries of the Mid-Wife. Each chapter starts with or contains part of the diary transitioning between that a third person point of view that is confined largely to the Midwife’s thoughts and feelings. At times, the Midwife allows other characters to write in her journal. Halfway through the book, the third person viewpoint leaves the midwife and follows those that have long separated from the midwife. While this is not a total violation because of the frame, it is a bit jarring, and also presents too neat of a bow. The one point where it doesn’t jar is at the very end, where a wider world view is given.
Elison, however, gets huge points for her use of FGM in the novel. Considering the world that Elison creates, its use is hardly surprising, but many authors would not have the guts to use. Elison does. In fact, this is something that Atwood herself might have done had she written Handmaid’s Tale today. Hopefully, The Book of the Unknown Midwife will be placed beside many a copy of Atwood’s classic.