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Mar 17

The Book of Etta by Meg Elison

I loved The Book of the Unnamed Midwife. It was raw and unfiltered, uniquely exploring the issue of female reproductive rights in the middle of an apocalypse. I loved it so much that after reviewing it on my blog I suggested the book to Kirstyn for The Writer and the Critic podcast. I then applauded when it deservedly won the Philip K. Dick award and added volume to that cheer when a mainstream publisher bought the first novel (originally released by an indie press) and contracted author Meg Elison to write a second book in the same world. Well… to be absolutely honest, I was hoping the Unnamed Midwife would be a standalone story. Still, when The Book of Etta was announced I pre-ordered it immediately because reservations aside I was curious to see how Elison would develop her world.

The Book of Etta is set one hundred years or so after the events of Midwife. The community that the midwife forms at the end of the first book has grown, slowly, with only one or two viable births a year. Known as “Nowhere” (a possible riff on the literal translation of utopia)* the small colony has adopted a hive structure where a single women is tended to by a group of men. Unsurprisingly, and given the context of a world where human extinction is a real possibility, the matriarchy places great significance on reproduction. Healthy women are expected to fall pregnant even though it might be a death sentence. Cue Etta. She’s less interested in procreation and more interested in saving the lives of women who – outside of Nowhere – are being captured, abused and exploited by men. Inspired by the unnamed midwife (a totemic figure for the community of Nowhere) she spends most of her time outside the colony, searching and raiding for items of value and more importantly freeing enslaved women. Like the Unnamed Midwife, Etta disguises her biology, dressing as a man. It’s more than just a façade though. When on the road, facing violent men, Etta becomes Eddy and is identified as a “he”. As Eddy she becomes increasingly aware of the Lion, the ruler of Estiel (you know it as St Louis) and his harem of opium addled women.

On the surface, The Book of Etta is more conventional and straightforward than its predecessor. Where the Unnamed Midwife was told in first person (diary entries) but also jumped to an omniscient third person as part of a framing story, The Book of Etta is a third person narrative from first to last page. And where the plot of Unnamed Midwife was shaggy and loose with no specific direction in mind (other than survival and spreading the message of birth control) The Book of Etta, with its introduction of the Lion (as evil a bastard as you’re likely to meet) has a far tighter and structured narrative – inevitably developing into a struggle between good and evil.

But that’s on the surface. What makes The Book of Etta more than just a confrontation between Eddy / Etta and those who would continue to abuse and enslave women is the conversation of gender that’s threaded throughout the story. If The Book of the Unnamed Midwife was distinctive for dealing with reproductive rights in the aftermath of an apocalypse, The Book of Etta is unique for exploring gender identity while human civilisation is on the wane. “Eddy” isn’t just an escape hatch, a personae that allows Etta to forget or ignore what’s expected of her back home, he’s also the gender that Etta finds she identifies with the most. But more then just a discussion about what it is to be trans in a world where day to day survival is not a given, Elison highlights the instinctive prejudice that results for a society where biology has greater priority than gender. Etta / Eddy who should be sympathetic to others like her is, in fact, the opposite. When Eddy finds himself attracted to Flora who presents as a woman but has the biology of a man, she feels betrayed, angered that Flora hid who she truly was – as if the “Flora” persona was a disguise. Eddy’s struggle to accept Flora as a mirror of his own circumstances leads Flora to observe:

“You [Eddy] didn’t see me because you think there are only two kinds of things in the world. Men and women. Good and evil. Slavers and rescuers. You’ve seen more of the world than I have, but you know less about it. There’s more in this world than you can even dream about, Eddy. You’re only not seeing it because you won’t.”

This tension between the binary and the fluid, between how we view ourselves and how we views others, is the true strength of the Book Etta. It’s a tension that expresses itself in the politics and power dynamics of this burgeoning world. Eddy / Etta can’t abide the thought of trading with slavers even if it means savings the lives of women. The leaders of Nowhere have a more nuanced take. And this opposition – the binary worldview of Eddy / Etta with the more fluid, complicated position of her friends and families – propels the last third of the narrative and provides for a gripping climax.

The Book of Etta is not as good as The Book of the Unnamed Midwife. But it’s like saying that chocolate ice-cream is not as good chocolate ice-cream with chocolate chips. If I had a reservation it was with the addition of a mystical / vaguely supernatural element, specifically involving the Mormon community that Eddy / Etta encounters and the healing powers of their prophetess. It’s not uncommon for post-apocalyptic narratives to feature psychic or otherworldly powers… but I found it an uncomfortable fit in the world of the Unnamed Midwife. Still, it’s a minor quibble. This is a fantastic, insightful and complex discussion about gender identity and I eagerly await the third book in the trilogy.

*Yes, I know the literal translation is “no place” or “good place” depending on how you compound your syllables.

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