“Before the plague, women were rulers and peacekeepers and cooks and dancers and whatever they wanted to be. And they had medicine that made it impossible to get pregnant. They were free. And now they’re property almost everywhere, raped to death and sold to monsters by monsters.”
Meg Elison’s The Book of Etta is the much-anticipated sequel to her award-winning novel The Book of the Unnamed Midwife.
Note: You can read my review of the Unnamed Midwife by clicking this link.
Picking up decades after the events of The Book of the Unnamed Midwife, this book tells the story of Etta, a “living daughter” of the settlement Nowhere. In the tradition of The Unnamed Midwife, Etta’s story is a singular viewpoint from which we readers experience the changed world, enhanced with some sections from the narrator’s point of view. However, the changed world (and the nature of Etta’s life) are so different than that of the Unnamed and the world she occupied that the reader’s experience is materially different from book to book.
This transition in the tone of the books in the Road to Nowhere series is a brilliant technique by Elison, though it does have some down sides. On paper, I’m overawed by the way Elison has used voice and tone to crystallize the reader’s impression of both the main character and the world she occupies. I’m grateful that Elison made the distinction so stark, as it really showcases her storytelling ability and tonal range. I’m increasingly a fan of such non-standard series, and am thrilled by Elison’s choice for the Road to Nowhere collection.
However, I don’t mind admitting that I was more a fan of the tone of The Book of the Unnamed Midwife than I am of The Book of Etta.They’re both wonderful stories, with rich fully-realized characters, compelling narratives, and fascinating journeys through a remarkable world. Personally, I found that the sparse tone of the first book gripped me more than the more relaxed tone of the second book.
Tone aside, The Book of Etta is full of fascinating characters, and explores more deeply than its predecessor could the settlements that have arisen since the world changed. I continue to be awed by how clearly I find my suspicions of post-apocalyptic humanity reflected in the various settlements Elison creates.
“The twining figure of a caduceus was carved into the floor. The people of Nowhere said that the Unnamed had had a tattoo of that strange image on her chest, but Etta didn’t believe it. It wasn’t in the book, and it seemed too dreamy for the woman who had practically built the settlement of Nowhere by herself, and written its history besides.”
Two of my favorite things Elison does in this book are 1) exploring the way the tradition of journal-keeping grows and becomes incorporated into the cultural traditions of Nowhere, and 2) exploring the ways different settlements (and their individual coping measures) have impacted each small culture’s definition of womanhood.
It is an absolute joy to encounter different folks’ feelings about the journaling obligation left to Nowhere by the Unnamed, and to read excerpts of specific settler’s journals throughout Etta’s narrative. This is really the heart of Elison’s work, to me; through these journals, she elegantly explores how different people find meaning, comfort, and stability in the remade world, as well as introducing glimpses of the world outside Etta’s experience, bridging the gap between the two narrative timelines, and providing thoughtful contrast to Etta’s point of view.
While the aspect above is my personal favorite part of this book, the likely point of the narrative lies within the different ways settlements have redefined womanhood due to each settlement’s survival strategy. Elison knocks it out of the park with this, which is a continuing theme throughout the narrative and manages to be both a sociological study and a driving plot point. Somehow, I felt neither talked down to nor preached to, while at the same time these explorations expanded my personal understanding of womanhood.