Wednesday Review: Birtmarked by Caragh M. O’Brien
- Published on Wednesday, 13 June 2012 11:30
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Birthmarked is an odd gem among the YA dystopias. It takes place in the desert that used to be the shores of Lake Michigan (now called Unlake Michigan), in the small society that has evolved in the aftermath of our world’s destruction. There is the Enclave, the walled city on luxury and wealth and white, and the city outside called Wharfton, where people live in poverty, sacrificing three babies every month to the Enclave as payment for supplies and protection. Gaia is a midwife, advancing babies because it is her duty. But when her parents are arrested for crimes against the Enclave she discovers an enormous mystery that will lead her into the heart of the Enclave, towards her parents, her lost brothers, and maybe even love.
Birthmarked is intriguing as a YA dystopia because it is told in third person, a rarity now in this genre. Despite the distance that third person automatically creates, you are still very much in Gaia’s mind and thoughts throughout the whole story. I never felt a lack of connection with her because of the point of view, which is a mark of truly good writing. Many YA authors rely on first person to create this intimate connection between reader and protagonist without having to put in more work themselves. Caragh proves that you can turn page after page and never feel any distance from your heroine.
The world of Birtmarked was intriguing and surprising. When the story starts you are outside the wall with Gaia, and her world seems almost 200 years behind. Her mother is a midwife as well and her father a tailor; all their work is done with their hands and they mostly live from the livestock they keep behind their house, and the crops and supplies that they can trade in the market. The one mark of technology in Wharfton is the Tvaltar (TV Altar), where the poor who live outside the city can watch movies and specials about how wonderful life is inside the Enclave. But once Gaia enters the Enclave technology abounds. At one point she secretly enters a house that has a television, computer, and all the other trappings of life that we have today. These sharp contrasts between inside the wall and outside the wall are somehow more striking than other YA depictions of poverty, because Gaia does not feel the lack of technology. She does not yearn for anything that living inside the wall would provide–really the only thing that she does remark on is the food. Her eyes cast over the televisions and computers without much of a second thought. This was a really interesting move for Caragh–to ignore the technology in favor of focusing on the other, more important parts of her world.
The heart of this story revolves around children and their genetics. Essentially the people of the Enclave have inbred too much and now they are searching for cures to genetic diseases generations in the making. And Gaia and her mother hold some of the answers. For Gaia the journey of this book is no only about rescuing her parents and learning the mystery of the coded ribbon her mother left for her, its also about figuring out what place she wants to have in this society. Unlike other dystopic heroines like Katniss and Tris who are aware from the first pages that they want to change things, or at least wish things were different, Gaia’s realization that parts of her world are evil and corrupt is a slower process, and in a way it was more exciting to experience the horrors perpetrated by the Enclave–both loudly and publicly, and quietly and secretly–with Gaia, than for her to already know about them. What makes this process of realization even more moving is that it’s tied up in the romance and Gaia’s search for her parents. All parts of the conflict, both external and internal, weave together to form a solid whole, making this one of the better written dytopias I’ve read in months.
Birthmarked was a truly original and exciting start to a new series, and I am eager to get my hands on Prized, book two.