“Grow carrots. Eat carrots. Shit carrots. Die. That’s the best thing I can imagine. And the last generation of humanity winds down to zero. Got into the wrong business after graduation.[My] Profession is doomed.”
Elison’s narrative follows one woman (the unnamed midwife) through miles of trek and years of hard life, and at no point is it a struggle for the reader to follow her. Somehow, though, Elison manages this – bringing us along with the woman both from the POV of narration and through the woman’s extensive journaling – making the people, the settings, and the action all feel true-to-life real without getting overly precious or florid in her descriptions. It’s hard to really accept that this is Elison’s debut publication, given the immense amount of surety she has in her writing, evidenced by her skillful economy of words.
The book is split perhaps 1:2 between the woman’s journals and the narration of her story, and it’s a balance that serves the book faithfully and well. It humanizes the woman, allowing Elison to skimp a little in the narration of, say, the woman’s motives and feelings. This keeps the narration tight and moving, but also keeps us not just invested in the journal entries but also forces the reader’s point of view to align with the woman (even when we otherwise might not empathize directly with her experiences, her world being a post-apocalyptic wasteland and all). However, I will say that Elison chose to incorporate some small shorthand into the woman’s journal, and I found that at times it felt natural and at other times it interrupted my experiences of the woman’s voice through her journal. For example:
“Each and every one of us = last person on Earth.”
I find more and more that this concurrent awareness is a quality I enjoy and admire in books, and Elison uses it to great effect in The Book of the Unnamed Midwife. Though the narrative doesn’t jump back and forth through time, like some books do, the woman’s story is prefaced by a future vignette, which gives the woman’s story a particular context which it does not quite shake no matter how engrossed the reader becomes in the woman’s experience. That awareness left me watching the woman from two POVs simultaneously: from over her shoulder as she makes her way through the new world and through the haze of history and legend (given form in that first vignette).