November issue 2018
Book Review: Before She Sleeps
Bina Shah’s sixth novel, Before She Sleeps, is a post-apocalyptic thriller. It is set about 70 years in the future. The locale is an imaginary Middle Eastern city named Green City (which the author has loosely modelled on Muscat). It is the capital of a federally constituted state called South West Asia. Green City is a technologically state-of-the-art place, which has been resurrected from the ruins of nuclear devastation brought about by a war.
In the novel, a long-term consequence of nuclear fallout is its impact on human reproduction. A rare strain of the human papillomavirus has morphed into a rapidly spreading cervical cancer epidemic, with dire consequences for fertility. The decimated population stands at risk of being extinguished unless birth rates can be raised. The narrative of Before She Sleeps unfolds on the canvas of this dystopian scenario.
Dystopian fiction has a long pedigree of depicting authoritarian states (Huxley’s Brave New World, Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four and Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games, to name a few). Bina Shah’s Before She Sleeps is no exception. It follows from a well-established line of writing on feminist dystopias authored by women writers in which dystopic conditions centre on women’s fertility (or lack of it), starting with Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale in 1985, P.D. James’ Children of Men in 1992 and, more recently, Louise Erdrich’s Future Home of the Living God in 2017.
In Bina Shah’s novel, Green City has formulated rules to facilitate the rebuilding of society and the burden unsurprisingly falls on fertile women. The reproductive crisis, instead of empowering the women who are able to bear children, is co-opted by the State to use women as birthing machines with little control on their choice to bear children. The Official Green City Handbook for Female Citizens sees them as: “…foot soldiers, working hard to fulfill your role as the mothers of the new nation.”
Women are not allowed to work or even write private diaries. They are sent to indoctrination camps to brainwash them into accepting their procreative duties to the exclusion of all other forms of self-development. In a bizarre twist, they are even required to take on multiple husbands. This, presumably, is to rein in male licentiousness in a society with a disparate ratio of men to women.
This information is conveyed to the reader of the novel in chapters called ‘Voice Notes of Ilona Serfati.’ Ilona is an older woman and a subversive who rejects the human farming of women by founding – with her friend – a secret refuge called Panah, in an abandoned nuclear bunker. Women who are able to escape to Panah become part of this underground community. There is, however, a catch to living there. From the time these women are 18, they are sent above on secret assignations to spend nights with powerful men. They offer these men the intimacy of female companionship but without sex. Paradoxically, this arrangement subverts yet compromises with the power hierarchy at the same time. The storyline develops on the fault lines of this anomaly.
Sabine is one such woman who goes back and forth from the secrecy of Panah to the secrecy of her clandestine rendezvous. She is the protagonist of the story. Sabine’s engagement with the powerful official Joseph catalyses the plot in which her life is eventually threatened.
Before She Sleeps is fraught with a sense of impending doom. To Bina Shah’s credit, she sustains the tension throughout the novel, building up the inevitable danger to a resounding crescendo. In a successful use of pathetic fallacy, the build-up of a mighty sand storm provides a parallel between the primal power of nature and the convoluted power of human nature: “The sky’s grown blurry and orange, as if the entire City is reeling from some kind of sickness that’s corroded it down to its bones.”
Shah manages to create internal consistency of detail between the many moving parts of the story. Her characters are convincingly differentiated from each other. The futuristic elements in the story are not hard to imagine as a logical progression of technological development. The regression of liberal values astounds more profoundly.
The discussion generated by the novel concerns patriarchy and its partnership with the state in order to control women’s bodies. Bina Shah is also a writer of non-fiction and she brings the polemics of gender relations to bear on the novel. There is tremendous angst in the thematic concerns addressed in the book. The achievements by women to equalise their status seem fragile when cast against the power of state authority. The regression of women’s rights in a dystopic future is a matter to be considered today. Surely the steady output of female dystopian fiction has its pulse on a troubling zeitgeist.