A Very Gendered Apocalypse: The Book of the Unnamed Midwife and The Book of Etta

Over the past few days, in shared taxis and before bed, I have read the first two books in Meg Elison’s Road to Nowhere trilogy which explores the former U.S. in the years after an autoimmune disease devastates the population, killing women disproportionately. These books are uneven novels. As the speed at which I read them suggests, they are true page turners. You want to know how characters survive, or don’t, and the narrative’s early following of characters after they leave the eponymous midwife promises the reader that those questions will always be answered.

Elison plays with cliches of apocalyptic fiction with limited success. For example, in the first book, the main character sleeps through the apocalypse with the fever though, as a nurse on a maternity ward, she witnesses its beginning. The trope is thus not fully followed. Still, it is a bit disappointing not to get more of those final moments of the old world in flashback.

What the main character of the first book, who might better be described as many-named than unnamed, discovers quickly upon waking is that social deterioration and the altered balance between the genders has turned most men into predators who hunt and enslave women. At this historical moment, with a sexual predator in the White House, that seems terribly believable Even the good men in The Book of the Unnamed Midwife tend to belong settlements that fall into gender essentialism in their efforts to repopulate the earth.

It is really only in the second book that this essentialism is fully explored and problematized. At the same time, however, The Book of Etta contains a number of plot weakness—specifically, deus ex machina characters with unexplained spiritual powers and a weapons cache.

The third book, The Book of Flora, is not yet published and I expect that I will read it, though it isn’t a release for which I will be counting down the days.

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