Birthmarked by Caragh M O'Brien

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Birthmarked by Caragh M O'Brien

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Category: Teens
Rating: 3.5/5
Reviewer: Jill Murphy
Reviewed by Jill Murphy
Summary: Credible scene-setting in an enjoyable dystopian novel. Plot focus and the main character's love interest aren't quite so convincing. Nevertheless, fans of the genre will enjoy it.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 368 Date: April 2011
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 0857071394

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Sixteen-year-old Gaia lives in a post-climate change America, near one of the Great Lakes - or the unlake as its waterless hollow is now known. Gaia is a midwife-in-training, following after her mother. For this family, the cool age - that is, our age - is almost forgotten. There is no power in Wharfton, and both water and food is in short supply. But Wharfton sits outside the walled city of Enclave, and things are entirely different there - the scenes of leisure, wealth and plenty are played out on the Tvalter's big screen, which serves as entertainment for Wharfton's residents.

The Enclave's founders were prescient, you see, and now they are reaping the benefits of their research into producing mycoprotein and generating sustainable power. But prescient is as prescient does and the Enclave needs to preserve its genetic diversity. So, in return for rations of food and water, Wharfton supplies the Enclave with babies. The first three born each month are Advanced behind the city walls, adopted by an Enclave family to share in the riches of life there. As midwives, it's Gaia and her mother who do the Advancing and for this, their rations are more generous.

Gaia never questions this state of affairs until one day her parents are arrested by Enclave guards and Old Meg, her mother's assistant, passes Gaia a secret bundle containing a coded ribbon. It seems as though it isn't quite such a paradise inside the city walls as the Enclave would have everyone believe. The authorities make it clear they'll stop at nothing to get the information they need and if Gaia is ever to see her parents again, she'll need her wits about her and all the help she can get...

I love a good dystopian novel, so I was really looking forward to Birthmarked. How society might organise itself after catastrophic events is always fascinating and I found it very easy to believe in Gaia's world, with its rich sealed away in the logical extension of a gated community and its poor as supplicants asked to give far more value - its children - than it receives in return - subsistence at best. And the book also speaks to such a basic human need - to have children, to raise them, and to see what they become. Gaia's parents are not really insurgents; they're testators. But lost in the grip of a genetic crisis, the Enclave authorities don't see it like that and, like rich people through the ages, they crack down on the poor and powerless with the heel of a great big boot. So much for prescience - the city's founders don't want to give up anything to pay for their own mistake. Plus ca change!

Gaia, I liked. She's disfigured from a burn in a childhood accident and this has made her reserved and untrusting. She finds it difficult to accept help or even to take a compliment at face value, but she's asked to forget all this and step up to fight a battle she hadn't even realised was taking place. And she does so with great courage.

But Birthmarked isn't without its faults. The narrative lacks a single focus and drive - one minute Gaia's risking execution by the Enclave as a terrorist, the next she's trying to escape because they're going to use her as a puppet heroine. But nothing seems to have really happened to make them change their approach. People who help her aren't insurgents or secret fifth columnists, they're regime loyalists. Huh? I did have a problem with establishing the motivation of quite a few characters.

There's also a love interest for Gaia, in the shape of Leon, an Enclave guard and prodigal son of Enclave nobility. I was all for this disfigured-on-the-outside, beautiful-on-the-inside girl having a love interest, but it really didn't convince me - it was a hammy, Mills & Boon-style affair, with an older and aloof man hiding his attraction for an innocent but sparky young girl.

Despite this, I enjoyed Birthmark - fans of the genre will overlook its faults and enjoy it too, I am sure.

My thanks to the good people at Simon & Schuster for sending the book.

Anyone interested in the process of writing should look at O'Brien's blog, which is fascinating.

If they like this dystopian genre as much as I do, there's a wealth of great stuff out there. The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins has a similar style to Birthmarked, but follows a girl through gladiator-style tournaments. Incarceron by Catherine Fisher is more challenging but brilliantly thought-out. The Declaration by Gemma Malley also looks at the fate of babies in a future world and is truly classy. Bookbag also loved Dark Life by Kat Falls, which looks at a post-climate change world at the bottom of the ocean.

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