You know how when you finish reading a really really good book, you want to read another book right away? So you pick up a new book but put it back down after a few paragraphs, and you open another book but close it quickly, too. And you realize that your head is still full of the really really good book, and you’ll have to wait for it to clear.
Reading Meg Elison’s The Book of the Unnamed Midwife followed by its companion novel The Book of Etta did that to me.
The two books, which constitute the first two parts in The Road to Nowhere series, are satisfying on many levels.
The books explore gender both overtly and subtly, as it affects the characters and societies and plot. In the fragmented groups that the main character in each book encounters, we get to see a variety of responses to the scarcity of women caused by the worldwide plague. Those responses seem natural because Elison handles them deftly; they unfold as organic elements, supported by solid worldbuilding and thorough character development. And each of them shows us something different than the others, something complex, about gender, personhood, difference, and agency in our societies today. Many of the responses pose questions. Some questions are answered, and some are perhaps unanswerable.
The books have heart. The characters are round and full of life; their emotions feel real, sometimes surprising but always true, even when the characters are hiding or struggling with truth.
The books’ prose balances detail and restraint; meaningful detail is sometimes purposefully underplayed, which rewards close reading and offers the attentive reader the pleasure of fitting puzzle pieces into place.
This review may sound stuffy and academic and clumsy, but I promise you, The Book of the Unnamed Midwife and The Book of Etta are deeply personal and mesmerizing.