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Book Review: Birthmarked by Caragh OBrien

birthmarked carah m obrien Book Review: Birthmarked by Caragh OBrien

Given the spate of mediocre YA dystopian fiction hitting the shelves of late, its pleasing to read one that is as beautifully wrought as Caragh OBriens debut Birthmarked. OBriens novel, while admittedly flawed plot-wise, relying far too strongly on coincidence and circumstance, is thematically complex and challenging, and all of this is further complemented by largely spot-on characterisation and a world that is eminently believable.

Three hundred years from now, Unlake Superior is a world where the haves and the have-nots are explicitly divided by a Berlin-esque wall. Within the wall lives the Enclave, those genetically gifted individuals who live lives of relative leisure and abundance, while outside are those who eke out a simple, subsistence-level style of existence. But as with all such yin-and-yang societies, there is a sort of symbiosis going on here: those outside the wall pay to the Enclave a patently unusual tithetheir children. The tithe is essential to maintain appropriate levels of population within the wall, but is, of course, only extended to healthy children. Protagonist Gaia, a midwife by trade, is regularly privy to both the births of these children and to their subsequently being taken by the Enclave. Its a fact of life that Gaia, who is socialised into believing that not only are such things normal, but theyre for the greater good, never questions the practice until her mother, herself a midwife, is kidnapped for her suspected crimes against the Enclave.

This becomes the catalyst for Gaia to begin questioning not only her role within society, but the ethical foundations of the Enclave as a whole, and the rest of the book follows Gaias efforts to enter the hallowed walls of the Enclave society, and her subsequent questioning of the way of live of these individualsand of the Wharfton society in which she has grown up. And 'OBrien does an admirable job of these. Awkwardly telegraphed plot coincidences and just in time rescues and escapes aside, just about every facet of this book is well done. OBriens world distinctly recalls that of Margaret Atwoods The Handmaids Tale, in which women essentially become little more than wombs valued for their reproductive ability, and where the epitome of their existence is the birth of a healthy child.

OBrien challenges the reader to assess the value the life of the individual over the value of a wider society, but doesnt let things lie at this broader level of conception. Were told of how the lack of genetic diversity within the Enclave is leading to a high prevalence of haemophilia within the Tvaltar, itself a commentary on both the eugenics-style approach of this society, and also on the way it has turned its back on science and technology, this latter perhaps in response to the human-induced global warming that has led to the current situation. The regression of this supposedly progressive society is chilling: despite creating an illusion of pomp and splendour, were shown a world that is not only technologically and scientifically backwards, but which is also hopelessly parochial in terms of both its politics and social norms. The protectorate ruler, for example, could be characterised as either a dictator or an absolute monarch, as his powers seem endless and unmitigated; similarly, the justice system has devolved into a lynch em all style hysteria, with prisoners either hanged without trial, or imprisoned indefinitely in order to serve the needs of the state. And, of course, individuals are kept in order by the prevalence of security camerasthe fact that these are one of the few pieces of technology to have survived the past few hundred years is eerily indicative of the power of the state and its efforts to exert power and cow its citizens into submission.

Likewise, the lack of dissemination of knowledge is worrisome: the remaining scientific and medical knowledge of the world is kept amongst only a scant few, and this specialisation touches on those same issues raised by HG Wellss The Time Machine, which I reviewed last week. Likewise, its hard not to consider Jules Vernes notion of the pursuit of science to the exclusion of all else, which is a key theme in Journey of the Centre of the Earth (see my review).

Perhaps the key underpinning idea of this book is whether the ends can ever justify the means, and given this emphasis, Birthmarked fits in well with books such as The Chrysalids (see my review), as OBrien ponders relentless what it is that makes us human, and what it is that makes one human better (or more human) than another. As in The Chrysalids, Birthmarkeds society is arbitrary in its decisions about what is genetically or evolutionarily correct (indeed our main character is horribly scarreda fact that makes her unfit, despite it having nothing to do with her genetics) and the result is chilling, particularly when applied to our own historical context or those scientific dilemmas regarding genetic manipulation or genetic selection that have been on the horizon for a while now.

One facet of this novel that I have to applaud is OBriens deft avoidance of the noble savage trope. While Gaia initially romanticises her world outside the wall as a sort of bucolic idyll filled with rosy-cheeked women and rustic delights, her conceptions become far more incisive as her worldview is necessarily expanded courtesy of her travels within Tvaltar. But similarly her perceptions of the world within the wall change, too: rather than seeing people as a sort of faceless collectivemuch as the Protectorate seems toshe begins to see people for the individuals that they are. Admittedly, it is unusual to read a dystopian novel narrated by someone who is so disturbingly uninformed, but given the stories we hear about those living within communities where propaganda and misinformation is the word of the day, well, its believablealbeit disturbing.'Some readers may find this confusion and ambivalence frustrating, but this, combined with the contrasting narrative of semi love-interest Leon, makes for a thought-provoking read throughout.

Just as a final aside, I have to admit that Im rather disappointed to hear that this book is the first part of a trilogy (or however many books). I thought that Birthmarked ended in a manner that was superb: in the manner of all of the golden-age classics Ive referenced in this review it was open-ended enough to evoke myriad questions from the reader, and Im a bit saddened to hear that those ambiguities will be resolved in future volumes. With luck, though, OBrien will prove me wrong.

Rating: star Book Review: Birthmarked by Caragh OBrienstar Book Review: Birthmarked by Caragh OBrienstar Book Review: Birthmarked by Caragh OBrienstar Book Review: Birthmarked by Caragh OBrienblankstar Book Review: Birthmarked by Caragh OBrien (excellent)

See our other Caragh OBrien reviews

Purchase Birthmarked from Amazon| Book Depository UK | Book depository USA

With thanks to Simon and Schuster Australia for the review copy


  1. Great review of this book, its one that I quite enjoyed as well. I liked the ambiguity and the fact that everything wasnt as black and white as I find things often are in dystopias.

    • Stephanie /

      Im glad you enjoyed it, Amy. I was surprised to see the mixed reviews for this one, as I think its a very good example of what a dystopian novel can be. I love the moral ambiguity of it, and how Leon and Gaia are both conflicted about their roles and values.

  2. I just bought this book from my local Waterstones today. I have heard mixed comments about it but it seems good enough and after your review I dont feel too worried about reading it.

    Great review.

    Amber @ The Spine-Breakers Club

    • Stephanie /

      Thanks for visiting Amber. I do hope you enjoy it. Its definitely more subtle than a lot of the current YA dystopian work out there, and I think thats partly why its receiving mixed reviews. Admittedly there are a few plot issues, but thematically and in terms of its character- and world-building, its very good indeed.

  3. This sounds a lot more interesting than I thought it would, the dystopian genre is not really my thing but I might be willing to give this one a try. Thanks for the review!

  4. Stephanie /

    I struggle with the genre, toohistorically theres been some great stuff, but so many writers have been leaping on board of late with stuff that seems to be purely on trend, or all about the shock value. This one has enough depth to make it stand out, and I think there are some great things to come from this author.