Monday, May 31, 2010

HBIC Review: Birthmarked

Title: Birthmarked
Author: Caragh O'Brien
Page Count:
Genre: young adult, dystopian
Copy for review compliments of the public library

50 words or less: Gaia never questioned here responsibilities as a midwife, not even when she had to bring three babies every month to the Enclave within an hour of their birth. Then her parents are arrested for an unknown crime, and life as she knows it is changed forever.

Sigh. I love dystopian novels. I mean really love them. The worldbuilding is so intricate and unique, the struggles are so real, and the power of the human spirit is all over every page. I'd heard great things about this book before it was picked as a May Blog With Bite selection; pretty much across the board, the book didn't really live up to my expectations. Set phasers to stun, then, and read on.

Birthmarked took a long time to get going. I was totally okay with there being a lot of lead in because it's important for me, when I read a book, to really buy into the rules of the world in the story. This is especially true of dystopian novels; if I don't feel how monstrous the world truly is, then it's hard for me to connect to the characters and understand their plight or root for their cause.

This is pretty much what happened for me when I was reading Birthmarked. I felt like the divided society, the weird laws, the genetics, all of that, were described in an almost clinical fashion, as if by someone who was observing the society from afar or watching about it in a movie. I had an abstract idea of what people's lives were like, but no real connection to any of the characters.

The same thing extends to Gaia herself as a narrator. While one common trait of young adult dystopian novels is that the narrator is almost always wise beyond his or her years and has unusual skills or abilities, usually focused on surviving, I felt that, as informed as Gaia was sometimes, she was remarkably ignorant at others, and in ways she shouldn't have been. Gaia transformed immediately from someone who was obedient to the society in which she lived, to a rebel who was incredibly well-informed about people in power and their motives. Where did these sudden flashes of insight come from? The disjointed, sometimes lecturing narrative made it hard to really immerse myself in the story.

There were a lot of other disjointed elements that prevented me from fully enjoying the story as well. Some of this was purely a lack of relevant details. For example, for the outsiders, they were remarkably complacent in the whole infant advancement in exchange for pitiful rations. Nobody except the mothers whose babies were being taken seemed to really have an issue with this and we never really get an understanding of why. There are a few scenes where someone tries to explain why the community ended up the way it is, but they were very thinly sketched and abstract. I just didn't buy that everyone in these communities was cowed enough, or brainwashed enough, to just stand by and be like, well, that's that. Where was the history? Where was the development? We got plenty of tender vignettes of Gaia with her parents, but nothing that really explained anything.

I thought most of the secondary characters were pretty forgettable, for the most part, or were introduced only so Gaia wouldn't be talking to herself when some plot point was revealed. The setup for a sequel was apparent, so maybe the secondary characters will get more development there, but frankly I don't really want to wait- we met these people now, we should be learning something about these people now. Even the supposed bad guy, Mabrother Iris, was two-dimensional and frankly kind of reminded me of Mr. Burns from the Simpsons more than anything else.

There were some parts of this book that shone, that's for sure- I thought the bit on cooperation versus complacency was well done, and I enjoyed the evolution of the relationship between Gaia and Leon. I was left with lots of questions about the setting of the story and how the events of the book would affect the other players. I was curious about the wider world of the novel- what other communities exist, and are they all as strange as this one? The structure was here for this to be a really great story, but at the end of the day I felt like the focus was on being plausible instead of being vivid and the story as a whole suffered for it. I'm totally on board with setting up a series if the story merits it, but I personally didn't find enough in this book to make me want to read subsequent ones. Many other folks are over the moon about this title, though, so if you're into dystopian novels or want to explore a debut novel for 2010 it might be worth checking out still.

Overall Grade: C-
Blog with Bite Rating: 2/4

Discussion Questions
1. When reading dystopian, the scary aspect is thinking, "Could this happen one day?" Did you ask yourself this while reading Birthmarked? Do you think a future like this is possible? I think that elements of the story rang true for me- the class divisions, the segregation, the abuse of knowledge of genetics, but as a whole, without the sense of history of the world of the story, I didn't find the overall setting all that convincing.
2. How did the puzzle aspect of the story work for you? Did you figure out the code or was the explanation a surprise? Does this element work for you in a story or is there one you like/appreciate more? I was very interested in reading about how the code actually worked although I fully admit that I didn't see the things the narrative was pointing out. But then again, I can't see anything in Magic Eye pictures either so it's probably me.
3. Gaia follows in the steps of her mother as a midwife. For Gaia in the beginning its service and only later does she realize what taking the babies signifies. Can you put yourself in the mothers role, what would you do if Gaia tried to take your newborn? Honestly I think it depends on whether you're a member of the society in this book or not- it seemed like the people of the story had kind of accepted that advancing babies was a way of life that wasn't going away and that raising a fuss only drew unwanted attention. I'm not honestly sure how I would behave or react in the setting of this story.
4. Gaia feels ugly because of her scar and unable to fit in within the wall (enclave) because she wasn't perfect. Do you think finding out that her parents lied to her [about how she got the scar] was able to move the story along?? I think, frankly, the only purpose served by Gaia having the scar at all was to show how determined her parents were that she not be advanced. It kept coming up, over and over again, and after awhile I felt a little browbeaten by the whole situation. I did think it interesting, though, that people inside the Enclave were so interested in the scar while simultaneously being so enamored with genetics. They viewed her scar as an imperfection, but it's not one that can be passed on. Interesting contradiction.


Mel said...

I love your review and completely understand what you meant by the idea that the book was terribly hard to get into. I had to force myself to read most of it, and then really only enjoyed it at the very end. I am glad I wasn't the only on who had that problem.