Before She Sleeps by Bina Shah
My rating: 3.5 of 5 stars
Author Bina Shah, a writer, journalist, and blogger (The Feministani), has written a novel that seems to be part of a growing trend, feminist dystopian fiction. With a uniquely Eastern take on The Handmaid's Tale, Shah gives us a culture in which the sexism of Islamic thinking about women, climate change, and disease have reduced the population of women to a grave extent. The story is set in the fictional South West Asian "Green City," which is not the Singapore setting of the book's cover by a long shot given the sandstorms. In Green City, the Perpetuation Bureau is tasked with restoring the population balance. Women, who are fertile are assigned husbands, usually three or four, and obligated to produce as many children as possible. Contraception and abortion are illegal, and anything that would harm an unborn child is treason. Women, who must take the veil in public, have all their rights delegated to their husbands. Even medical treatment for women is relegated to a special status that few doctors have been trained to supply.
In a society in which women are only seen through their procreative ability, a few men are lonely for simple companionship rather than sex. Women of the Panah, those living as dissidents, rebelling against the subjugation of their lives to loveless marriages in which they are forced to have sex with multiple husbands to produce the required children, secretly provide platonic companion services to men wealthy enough to afford their company. Scurrying by driverless cars, under cover of darkness, they visit some of the most powerful men in Green City. Lin Serfati runs the Panah, the organization left to her care by her now deceased aunt Ilona, who started it. Sabine is a young woman who joined the Panah to avoid having her widowed father sell her into marriages against her will. As we come to learn over the course of the book, some women have tried to avoid the marriage scheme by falsifying their fertility data. Sabine's ill-fated mother was among their number. The men of the story vary in character from the vile (Joseph, Reuben, Le Birman) to compassionate idealists (Bouthain, Asfour) and are often as sketchy on the page as their characters appear to be in their motivations. Sabine is the central figure of the story and has suffered a violation unwittingly begun by Lin. Asfour and Bouthain become her shields, making great sacrifices to protect her.
While there were things I loved about the novel (honestly, we'd be hard pressed to find something well-written set in this corner of the world that I won't enjoy) I found the scientific parts of the plot to be vague and unconvincing, and some aspects of the Green City culture to be nebulous. While I liked Sabine and Lin, they both seemed almost numb at times, though perhaps that is precisely the point that Shah is trying to make about a system that has subjugated women, even women resisting the system, in this way. Existing on the margins, I was unclear from the start as to why so few of the women (and the male loved ones) have tried to escape to what is very clearly a viable outside world rather than living with the constraints Green City imposes on women's lives.
I've seen some reviewers complaining that the end left them hanging. I didn't feel that way and wondered if these readers have read Atwood's actual novel of the unnamed protagonist in Handmaid's Tale? While the future is still uncertain in this story, it seems at least to have been secured. An interesting read, if somewhat unfulfilled with respect to the story's potential in my eyes.
Trigger warnings: rape
I received a paper ARC version of this book in exchange for an honest review.
View all my reviews