The Book of the Unnamed Midwife by Meg Elison [spoiler-free review]


I was extremely cautious when picking up "The Book of the Unnamed Midwife" for the first time. My partner actually pointed this dystopian novel out to me at his local library, and if it wasn't for that, I can hand-on-heart say that I wouldn't of picked it out for myself. In fact, even after reading the summary, I grimaced and slid it back onto the shelf.

A woman survives a deadly plague that has wiped out most of the nation. Very few woman, hardly any children, and countless men are all that's left standing. Due to the men far outnumbering the remaining women on Earth, a battle of power comes into play and many females find themselves at the mercy of gangs. They are forced into acts that are unspeakable and those that are still lucky enough to be with their chosen partner find comfort in intimacy, and as a result, many end up pregnant. But the babies aren't surviving and the mothers aren't doing much better. Our protagonist decides that the only way to survive in the new world is to hide herself in plain site as a man, and travel through the US in search of supplies and if lucky, safety. Along the way she encounters trouble, various women needing help, and communities. She keeps account of it all in her journal.

If you're like me, then you may be thinking what I did "Rape? No, thank you." This books seems to be following in the footsteps of A Handmaid's Tale, which isn't necessarily a bad thing as such stories do have to be told given the state of our world right now. We have taken so many steps over the past few years when it comes to feminism and standing together, yet the world and the hierarchy seem to constantly be trying to pull us backward - and frighteningly, they are succeeding. Some men have yet to grasp the respect they ought to have for women that aren't their mothers (in other words, they have yet to grow out of their teenage perverted stage that goes hand-in-hand with dominating tendencies), and those that are the exact opposite sometimes get the wrong end of the stick by the women who can't fully understand the way of feminism being about equality and not being above the opposite sex. It's quite a muddle. But alas, this is a book review so let's move on. (Though I'm open to a discussion in the comments.) The plot of The Book of the Unnamed Midwife made it sound as though rape would be heavily involved throughout this story, I just didn't know how graphic it'd be and that put me off big time. Rape is a difficult topic to write when it comes to having to be accurate enough to not make it seem belittled, but without making it overly difficult to read. Don't get me wrong, a good book ought to bring out all sorts of emotions out of you, but there is always a fine line when the emotions aren't pleasant. Did this novel succeeding in riding the line? I'm still unsure.

Within the first few pages, there was an attempted rape and I would go as far as to say that it was the most graphic out of the entire book. At least in the way of the writing and experiencing the act with our main character. Throughout the remainder of the novel, we mostly get informed about such violence through either side characters or comments made by the rapists. It's unsettling and though not out of place given the story's plot, it can be sometimes sudden.

I did enjoy reading this book as I did want to see where the story was going, I will say that. I just had some problems and as someone who usually looks on the bright side of things, it's difficult for me to write my thoughts down without feeling as though I'm complaining. I'm not. I found the novel interesting and it was most certainly a different take on a dystopian world, there wasn't a huge romantic story which I was originally expecting, and that was hugely appreciated by me as it would've undoubtedly felt forced. Our protagonist is a strong-willed woman. But...

I don't think this is a female empowerment book. It isn't necessarily marketed as such, but given the overall story, it's what one might expect going into it. Our main girl was great, as I said, she took care of herself and didn't take any crap from anyone. But she was cold, ice cold if anything. You could argue that given the world, you would be cold. I get that, but hear me out. The moments that we actually saw some humanity light up within her, it was when she was thinking of sex. Which, meh, really? I get it. A year or two spent mostly alone with no one to scratch your, let's say, itches. It'd be frustrating and your sexual drive may be on the greedy side. But it felt like a slap in the face when you'd go from reading about how a woman was taken by a gang for years and used repeatedly, to how our protagonist is missing sex. Maybe the author was simply trying to include a positive outlook on sexual activities to not make the entire act seem tainted by the new world, I don't know. I just couldn't personally wrap my mind around it.

My other problem was our protagonists way of being a "strong female". She dressed as a guy, which yeah, smart. But that was the only reason she seemed strong to both us, and the other characters. I may be thinking too much into it, as I often do during these reviews. But she rarely fought back as a woman, and I think that leaves an unsettling aftertaste seen as this book ought to push "girl power" on you. The side characters weren't much better, in fact, I don't think there was a single strong-willed woman other than our Midwife. They were all meek, bar one who basically stuck with the mentality of "I'm a tough woman but I'd rather be with a guy who could potentially hurt me as I most definitely wouldn't be able to protect myself. I'm just a woman!" I mean, really?

Sigh. All in all, this was an interesting story but it severely lacked depth for the female characters. I turned the last page of this book feeling a little discouraged as a woman.

What female empowerment books have you recently read? Let me some recommendations below!

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