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Saturday, 2 July 2011

Review: Birthmarked

Author: Caragh O’Brien

Release date: 28th April 2011 UK
Genre: Dystopia
Target audience: 12+
UK Publisher: Simon and Schuster

Summary from Amazon:

IN THE ENCLAVE, YOUR SCARS SET YOU APART, and the newly born will change the future. In the future, in a world baked dry by the harsh sun, there are those who live inside the walled Enclave and those, like sixteen-year-old Gaia Stone, who live outside. Following in her mother's footsteps Gaia has become a midwife, delivering babies in the world outside the wall and handing a quota over to be "advanced" into the privileged society of the Enclave. Gaia has always believed this is her duty, until the night her mother and father are arrested by the very people they so loyally serve. Now Gaia is forced to question everything she has been taught, but her choice is simple: enter the world of the Enclave to rescue her parents, or die trying. A stunning adventure brought to life by a memorable heroine, this dystopian debut will have readers racing all the way to the dramatic finish.


Birthmarked was an intriguing dystopian novel which draws on themes of science, genetic screening and the idea of the “perfected” human.

Gaia lives in Wharfton. Her mother is a midwife and her father a tailor. At the beginning of the novel Gaia delivers her first baby unassisted and advances it to the Enclave. This is her duty. She must pass three babies each month to the privileged society who live behind the wall. In return for her loyalty her family receive water, electricity and a protein to help them live. Life outside the wall is hard. The families live in poverty and have to use their resourcefulness and sense of interdependency to survive. Gaia could never have been advanced to the Enclave and have a more prosperous life because she has a scar on her face from an accident as a child. Only the perfect babies may be given for advancement.

Gaia is an interesting character. She is strong but of course at the beginning of the novel she is indoctrinated to believe that it is just and right to serve the Enclave. I have to say that I was not too keen on the scenes which show Gaia in her role as a midwife. I do not have any desire to read about childbirth but it is vital to the plot. Thankfully there aren’t too many scenes of midwifery. And the other aspects of the setting and plot are a delight to the reader’s eye.

My favourite parts of this novel were Gaia’s memories of her life with her parents. Her relationship with her father was so tender and I felt as if there was a special artistry to O’Brien’s writing in these passages. I also enjoyed the way the author explored the theme of disfigurement. The layers were peeled back so that it was more than a superficial mention but rather an in depth exploration about living with a birthmark. It affects Gaia’s self-esteem which you’d expect but I liked that O’Brien went further to show how she had learnt to use it to her advantage and at times as a barrier to protect herself.

Sadly there were times when I felt the author tried too hard to explain things. I liked the chrome spoons as a method to explain the concept of DNA. However, I did feel that there was a stiltedness to the language in these more science related scenes. I don’t need DNA explained to me. I wonder if contemporary teen readers would? Or whether it was for the benefit of the characters? I understand that the author wanted to raise the stakes for the population of the Enclave so perhaps this was the best way to do it. I’m undecided.

I felt like I have seen this ending in a number of dystopian novels that have been released this year but it in no way detracted from my enjoyment of the novel. I do think there is a challenge ahead for dystopian fiction as there is a trend with the genre to refer to life beyond the confines of the society in which the main character lives. In the case of Birthmarked Gaia doesn’t know what lies beyond the boundaries of Wharfton and the Enclave. So I am left with mixed feelings – intrigue and suspicion – O’Brien must delight us in future books with the mystery of the unknown and give it her unique twist. Birthmarked was certainly a complex and intriguing novel – the setting certainly evoked a feeling of the fantastical which I haven’t seen in dystopian fiction before – it was an enjoyable read.

Thank you to Simon and Schuster for sending the book to review.

Read for the Debut Author Challenge 2011


kirsty at the overflowing library said...

i really need to get a copy of this at some point soon - fab review

E.Maree said...

Great review, love how you balanced it out with some criticism.

It's got a gorgeous cover. I'm a little put off by the mid-wifery, but I'd read it just to find out more about the Enclave and the world outside the wall.