Birthmarked by Caragh O'Brien

One of the great things about book blogging is that you sometimes get books in the mail unexpectedly. And sometimes you aren’t quite sure what you want to read next, then a book appears and you think: “Hey, that looks interesting I’ll read that.” This is exactly how I came to read Birthmarked an interesting dystopian novel centered on birth and family interaction.

Here is the publishers blurb:

After climate change, on the north shore of Unlake Superior, a dystopian world is divided between those who live inside the wall, and those, like sixteen-year-old midwife Gaia Stone, who live outside. It’s Gaia’s job to “advance” a quota of infants from poverty into the walled Enclave, until the night one agonized mother objects, and Gaia’s parents disappear.

As Gaia’s efforts to save her parents take her within the wall, she faces the brutal injustice of the Enclave and discovers she alone holds the key to a secret code, a code of “birthmarked” babies and genetic merit.

Fraught with difficult moral choices and rich with intricate layers of codes, BIRTHMARKED explores a colorful, cruel, eerily familiar world where a criminal is defined by her genes, and one girl can make all the difference.

This was one of those books that I enjoyed but it didn’t totally grab me – in the “Hmm, that’s interesting” rather than the “You gotta read this!” category.

The setting is well done: mysterious and ominous but without overly-complex details that bog down the story or trip up the plot.  The lead character, apprentice midwife Gaia, is strong as well. She develops as the story does: from a young girl moving into a career and comfortable with her place in the world – even as she struggles to deal with her scar and the resulting pain – to a young women who understands the larger social forces shaping her world and who is willing to take risks to stand up for her fundamental beliefs.

The philosophical or political direction of the novel was surprisingly a bit vague. The author makes clear on her website that global warming inspired – if that is the right word – the story but the climate and resource issues merely provide a backdrop or jumping off point. Instead, the author focus on the physical and moral issues involved in a society divided between have and have nots – split along genetic lines into those with resources, power, freedom and all that entails.

The story isn’t really didactic on any of these issues but rather uses the political, moral and physical landscape to craft a story. If there is a drawback it is that – like so many initial books in a series – the world and the characters are not always flushed out fully. The ending isn’t very satisfying but certainly leaves you looking for the sequel.

Those who enjoy female heroines in young adult fiction, however, will particularly like this first book in a planned series.

Kevin Holtsberry
I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season).

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