Author: Caragh O’Brien
Length: 361 pages
My star rating: ★ ★ ★ ¾
When Gaia Stone returns home from her first solo delivery, she discovers that her parents have been arrested and taken into the Enclave, the great walled city that governs the town of Wharfton. Despite her loneliness, she assumes her mother’s place as the midwife of their neighborhood until she discovers that her parents are due to be executed for treason. Confused, desperate, and increasingly disillusioned, Gaia risks everything and sneaks into the Enclave in an attempt to save them. She soon realizes that life in the Enclave is not as perfect as it seems and that they would kill to know her parents’ secrets.
Birthmarked, in some ways, is not all that different from other dystopian YA novels. There is nothing particularly unique about it–totalitarian government that uses terror and propaganda to control the population? Check. Oppressed poor class excluded from said government’s inner circle? Check. Teenage heroine suddenly forced to see the light? Check.
But it never felt like a ripoff, at least not to me. The plot was just okay, though it certainly seemed more feasible than, say, shipping off twenty-four kids a year who then slaughter each other. What really set it apart from others of its kind was the prose, though. While I like The Hunger Games, O’Brien’s writing is somehow richer and more mature than Suzanne Collins’. (The fact that she chose to write in third- rather than first-person also helps.)
Even the typeface lets readers know that something is slightly different here: the font is considerably smaller than most YA novels. I’m not a snob about YA–I’m in my twenties and still read it all the time–but that small change made me feel like I was reading something genuinely substantial. With all that said, Birthmarked did not take forever to slog through, font size aside.
I also appreciated that there were some glimmers of hope and beauty interspersed throughout the novel. Though the Enclave is stealing babies from Wharfton and willing to execute citizens for “genetic crimes” (among other things), most of the people who live there are–like the people of Wharfton–simply trying to survive.
Moreover, though she hints at some kind of disaster caused my climate change, O’Brien does not conjure up hellish images. She describes an unforgiving but livable landscape with a dried-up “unlake,” sparse rainfall, and a vague “wasteland” where fruits like oranges are luxuries. Yet there is beauty in this new, harsher world, too–it is the only world the characters have ever known. Not everything is fully fleshed out–no info-dumping here–yet you get the sense that she has it all planned out
One passage in particular does a wonderful job exemplifying O’Brien’s flair for descriptive language and how different Gaia’s reality is from our own.
White, wooden arches framed the solarium, while the lush foliage of ferns and the gurgle of running water created an oasis of peace and rich beauty. … Gaia paused in an open archway, breathing in the fragrant, humid air and marveling sorrowfully that such a place could exist. Green leaves of every shape, colorful corollas, and tempting fruits spread in a vast array around her. Is this, she wondered, what the earth was once like? She was drawn irresistibly forward the sound of water and found, in the center of the solarium, a perfectly circular pool. Its serene surface reflected the undersides of the bordering ferns and a touch of sky. She’d never seen water used simply for beauty before, and it stirred a mixture of resentment and awe inside her. She fingered a pale yellow bloom, dazzled by its fragile petals, and her gaze lifted to where a palm tree soared against the arching, glass-paned ceiling. The water and energy needed to maintain this space defied her imagination. (297-8)
If that doesn’t make you want to go hug a tree, I don’t know what will.
There are some moments of melodrama and some shocks and twists that feel a bit artificial, but for the most part, Birthmarked is an excellent addition to the YA dystopian field. Its two major characters are sympathetic and compelling; its totalitarian villains have somewhat understandable motives that go beyond “controlling and extorting the rabble”; and some mysteries are left intact at the end of the book for the sequels.
It is a strong debut for Ms. O’Brien–I definitely look forward to reading the rest of the series.