Fertile ground for dystopian nightmares
Fiction: Future Home of the Living God, Louise Erdrich, Corsair, €21.50
There was an exchange on Twitter that went viral recently: a man, deliberately trolling, wrote: "Look out the window and name one thing women have made?" Without missing a beat, a woman tweeted back: "EVERY. SINGLE. HUMAN. BEING." The power of female fertility is simultaneously so mundane as to be overlooked and so significant that it remains the principle battleground in culture and gender wars, a tool or a weapon to be appropriated by those who seek to control the masses. Feminists and writers of speculative fiction have long known this. "The control of women and babies has been a feature of every repressive regime on the planet," wrote Margaret Atwood earlier this year, on why her 1985 novel The Handmaid's Tale is resonating so forcefully in the age of Donald Trump.
Now Louise Erdrich tackles the subject in her 16th novel. Set in an imminent future where twentysomethings just about remember snow from childhood, Future Home of the Living God owes an obvious debt to Atwood, as well as to PD James's The Children of Men, though Erdrich also weaves in themes of Native American history, politics and the nuances of family relationships familiar from her most recent novels, The Roundhouse and LaRose.
Here, the narrative takes the form of a secret diary, written by Cedar Hawk Songmaker and addressed to her unborn child. Cedar is Ojibwe, though her lyrical name was bestowed by her liberal white adoptive parents ("happily married vegans"). Four months into her unplanned pregnancy, Cedar sets out in search of her birth family to learn more of her genetic history. The resilience and potential treachery of our genes is one of the novel's most insistent themes. While Cedar goes in search of her biological heritage, society is suffering a genetic catastrophe: evolution has stopped progressing and appears to be reversing; the television news is filled with DNA experts, asking: "Hasn't anyone noticed that dogs, cats, horses and pigs have stopped breeding true?"
This crisis of breeding quickly spreads to humans and the ensuing panic is exploited by an authoritarian government with theocratic overtones. The situation escalates fast; martial law is declared, the internet becomes a means of surveillance, television stations are commandeered and a policy of "gravid female detention" is introduced, requiring all pregnant women to turn themselves in for monitoring.
Cedar goes into hiding with the help of her baby's father, Phil, while rumours filter back about what is done to the women and babies in the hospitals where they are imprisoned.
The second part of the book sees Cedar detained in one of these clinics, betrayed by someone she trusted, and planning her escape, her account fraught with the tension between her protective maternal instincts and the growing fear that the child she carries is in some way less than human. Erdrich has said that she began the book in 2002, then set it aside until the end of 2016, reworking it and cutting around 200 pages. This might account for the current version's disjointed feel, with many plot strands underdeveloped.
Atwood says of dystopian fiction: "The form was strewn with pitfalls, among them a tendency to sermonise and a lack of plausibility." Future Home of the Living God suffers from all of these at various times. The rapid, almost overnight decline of society feels too sketchy; at one point, Cedar looks out of her window and sees a giant lizard-bird in a tree, which may or may not be an archaeopteryx, but this Jurassic Park element is not explored in any depth. Though the narrative often sparkles with dry humour and Erdrich writes beautifully of the ferocity of maternal feeling and the terrors of pregnancy, it reads as if she has tried to cram in too many ideas and with too little room to breathe. © Observer
Sunday Indo Living