Book Review: Book of the Unnamed Midwife (The Road to Nowhere #1) by Meg Elison

The Book of the Unnamed Midwife by Meg Elison
My rating: 🌟🌟🌟 (3 stars)
Publisher: 47North

Initial thoughts: Good but seriously dark for almost the whole first two-thirds of the book bordering on misery porn. It's the apocalypse but damn, I started rooting for the fever to finish off the job. The last third held the hope and is the only reason I'm interested in continuing with the series.

I happened upon this book and decided to give it a read not knowing much about it. I'm a fan of apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic fiction so I'm fairly open to giving an unknown a chance.

I won't recap the summary but suffice it to say that for anyone familiar with the things that tend to happen when civilisation falls and extinction event illness traipses around the world decimating the human population, all the usual horrors show up along with some enhanced hellscape touches. In this case, the illness kills off 98% of men and is even harsher on women and children. What made this story most harrowing and to me, bordering on misery porn for the first two-thirds of the story is that there was nary a dash of male decency. There's one character in the very beginning that is, but his appearance is brief. Either the remaining males devolved into violent, murderous, predatory rapists within an extremely short time period or the dregs of men had some secret immunity from the illness.

One attacks the main character in her own apartment right after she's survived the illness & it's not even a month into the collapse. It's pretty much all downhill from there until Karen (aka The Unnamed Midwife/Dusty/Jane), reaches Utah. And of course, the Mormon homestead doesn't ultimately hold either and also devolves but this is the place where finally, a glimmer of hope in the remaining decency of the male of the species is found. I was beyond grateful for Honus and he wasn't the last as they came out of the woodwork in the last bit of the book. I could have stood another 20-50 pages on life at the fort as that turned out to be my favourite part of the story.

I liked how Karen thought to disguise herself as a man for safety's sake as she travelled but I was still tense and worried she'd be found out. I also loved her hoarding all the birth control and tampons she could. As much as I love apocalypse and dystopian world stories, I always look for the female characters to consider and care about that. Between grabbing those items and trying to find a Lenscrafters for extra backups, I'd be fairly busy myself in such a scenario.

I could go on about this story as there are so many worthy threads to discuss (the Hives, the radio transmissions, etc) and I won't have time to get to all of them but I do need to say a bit about the book's format. It's a bit varied. In the beginning, we enter a room where scribes (all boys) are being told, by Mother Ina about the time before and The Book of the Unnamed Midwife where the history of the big cities and the plague is held that they will be copying for future generations. And thus we enter into Karen's story as her journal entries kept during the outbreak in San Francisco and beyond. Within Karen's narration pops up another POV that is in the third person which was a bit jarring a shift but does further the story in detail. As if that's not enough, at regular intervals the story POV changes to Omniscient and relates information and fates on characters Karen has met but left the story's stage and also how things played out in other countries with characters Karen nor the reader meets. This tense tells the rest of their lives and while interesting and used for character arc closure, was odd to me. This isn't information contained in The Book nor is this anecdotal information anyone could have compiled cohesively in the world in which the story exists. It's solely for the reader in our world and felt a bit like authorial indulgence in that the author wanted to add those threads but had no plausible, seamless way to do it. I felt like it was a flaw in the telling but perhaps it was a feature.

While I was riveted to the story throughout, it wasn't until the final third of the book that I could see enough light at the end of the tunnel showing the way to the second book. The future looks brighter with children being born and surviving again and the society at least in this place, is matriarchal (I'm still worried about the lives of the boys as it's said they're turned over to a creche care situation after being weaned; the sequestering makes me uneasy). Mother Ina's daughter Etta, is the main character there and I look forward to getting to see how humanity is getting on through her eyes.

Recommended if fans of apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic fiction. Maybe begin somewhere else if you're wanting to jump into the genre.

Summary: When she fell asleep, the world was doomed. When she awoke, it was dead.
In the wake of a fever that decimated the earth’s population—killing women and children and making childbirth deadly for the mother and infant—the midwife must pick her way through the bones of the world she once knew to find her place in this dangerous new one. Gone are the pillars of civilization. All that remains is power—and the strong who possess it.
A few women like her survived, though they are scarce. Even fewer are safe from the clans of men, who, driven by fear, seek to control those remaining. To preserve her freedom, she dons men’s clothing, goes by false names, and avoids as many people as possible. But as the world continues to grapple with its terrible circumstances, she’ll discover a role greater than chasing a pale imitation of independence.
After all, if humanity is to be reborn, someone must be its guide.

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