I normally keep my book reviews short and sweet so that they’re easy to skim. There are, after all, plenty of places to go for in-depth book reviews. But this year I’m reading all the books on the shortlist for the 2018 Not the Booker Prize run by Sam Jordison and his team at the Guardian. Week by week I’m posting my reviews and contributing to the online discussions with other reviewers. It’s a lot of fun! And because my reviews for NTB are more in-depth, I decided to post them as a blog post. So here’s the first review on Sealed by Naomi Booth (published by the fabulous indie press, Dead Ink books).
Openings are important to me. I don’t really mind whether they fascinate, lull, charm, annoy or coax me, but they must make me feel something. And I absolutely loved the opening of this book. Alice and Pete have moved from city to bush for a ‘fresh start’. In a sort of prologue, although it’s not labelled as such, we have the wise words: ‘No one said to us: beware of fresh starts. No one said to us: God knows what will begin.’ There’s actually some considerable truth in this. And it sets the scene incredibly well. I’m already feeling apprehensive. What a fantastic opener.
But just in case that’s not enough, there’s another layer of creepiness, another warning of what might lie ahead (in the vaguest sense at the moment; that just adds to the unease): the house. They are renting a house that seems too good to be true – and you know what they say about that! Alice and Pete loved the pictures of the house so much they rented it unseen. That’s a big risk; they are clearly desperate. And they never asked why this dream house was so suddenly available. And so cheap. They didn’t ask. Because we don’t, do we? If something seems too good to be true, we don’t want to be forced to face the reality that it probably is too good to be true by asking sensible questions.
It’s clear they are running from something; specifically that Alice is running from something. Pete says she thinks about things too much, but every reader knows that you can’t run from thoughts, you can’t sever them from your body and leave them behind. So whatever they are running from will no doubt follow.
Pretty soon, we realise that it hasn’t just followed; it’s beaten them to it, arrived before them. Everywhere there are signs of something amiss – deserted main streets, the ‘crazy’ neighbour accusing an unnamed ‘them’ of making his wife sick, the beggar on the streets whose feet have sealed over his toenails, a sign of the dreaded ‘cutis’ disease that Alice fears. Alice is alert to all this, but Pete is blind to subtle signs which, if put together, might form something the size of a billboard reading ‘You’re not safe here either!’ But Pete doesn’t put them together. He can’t join the dots. He lives in a state of denial, Alice implying in her narrative that joining the dots just isn’t who he is. She’s the dot-joiner. He’s the good-time guy, the drinker, the socialiser, the womaniser…
In her narrative, it’s clear that Alice feels keenly the isolation of being the one who notices things, the one whose mind is open to undercurrents, who realises that the official discourse is not reflective of what’s happening on the ground. And this isolation is enhanced when the person closest to her, Pete, doesn’t believe her even when she points it all out to him. It feels like a form of betrayal. Her isolation is further increased when, heavily pregnant with her first child, she cannot register with a doctor or get to see a midwife.
The scariest thing about the novel is that it all seems too plausible. It doesn’t seem like a very distant future. OK, so it’s a novel, I get it. But you don’t have to watch much news these days to see the connections. Weather patterns have changed, causing ‘heat events’ and fires. The air is polluted. There are terrible smogs. Food, other than ‘protected food’ grown in an indoor protected environment, is contaminated with toxic chemicals. The plastics issue is there; could anything be more pertinent? Racism and hatred of immigrants is commonplace and spoken of openly. Migrants travelling by sea are prevented from entering and kept on islands where no one monitors what happens to them. The poor and marginalised, the vulnerable and sick, are bullied into leaving their homes and moving to camps from which no one ever returns. Cutis is a disease which doesn’t actually seem all that impossible. It’s not some crazy, infects-the-whole-world-in-a-day, zombie-inducing virus. The experts think it’s akin to an auto-immune response, where the body produces too much of something (in this case, skin) in response to some perceived threat. The figures for the disease are skewed by authorities who don’t record the true cause of death.
Booth tackles some difficult pregnancy-related issues head-on. Alice feels like the baby inside her isn’t right, like it’s trying to kill her: it is ‘uncontainably destructive’. Not every woman feels all warm and fuzzy during pregnancy. It can be a time of enormous fear and uncertainty, even if you’re lucky enough to have a nice home and a stable family life (and no crisis of world-changing proportions happening right outside). There’s physical uncertainty: birth is painful and can have permanent consequences. Women do still die in childbirth. There’s emotional uncertainty: will I love the baby the minute it pops out? What if I don’t? Will I be a bad mother? It’s a bit taboo to raise some of these issues. Booth taps into that. Alice’s fear is palpable.
The childbirth scene is not easy to read. (Several Not the Booker reviewers suggested that this was not a novel for pregnant women and they’re probably right!) But hey, we read partly to be challenged, right? If we all constantly read within our comforts zones how boring would life be? But the great thing is that I totally thought I knew where it was going: oh, I see, the baby is going to pop out all sealed up as per her worst fears about the virus being considerably more widespread than the authorities were letting on. And it wasn’t as simple as that, at all. I love it when that happens!
My conclusion? I was swept along by this book. I couldn’t put it down, right from that first paragraph when I felt the prickles on the back of my neck. It’s gloriously horrific, deeply thought-provoking, and tender and hopeful at the end without any tacky sentimentality. But is it a potential Not the Booker winner? Because that’s a different thing altogether from it simply being a book I enjoyed. My answer? Oh, hell, yes! This is winning material, for sure.
Proprietor of editorial business Splendid Stories. Experienced, professional editor offering creative guidance, developmental editing/critiquing, copy-editing, and proofreading.