Dark Lullaby by Polly Ho-Yen
Titan Books, ebook, £4.31
Review by Lottie Lightfoot
The best kind of dystopian novel is the one that aren’t too different from our own. Maybe our world in ten years down the line if we continue to make bad choices, as Black Mirror likes to frequently remind us. Dark Lullaby is one such treat.
Set in the not too distant future, Earth is currently battling a fertility rate of 0.2%. As a result, most women are strongly encouraged to undergo induction – a general, painful, and risky series of procedures to help them conceive a child. To ensure a child gets the best possible start in life, parenting is strictly monitored. The governing body – OSIP – oversees this as an unyielding, terrifying, omnipresent force. Parents are subject to ISPs – warnings for whatever a parent’s action has been that may be harmful or counterproductive to a child’s upbringing. Even trivial matters can result in ISPs, including opting for bottled milk rather than breastfeeding. Once the parents reach seven ISPs, the child will be taken.
We meet Kit, our protagonist, as she tries to retrieve her daughter, Mimi, from the safe house where she’s being kept and to escape the country together. The chapters alternate between “then” and “now”, flitting between Kit’s break for freedom and the events leading up to it. The chapters are short enough that the book goes by fairly quickly, almost echoing the frantic journey Kit, her husband, and Mimi must go on to stand a chance of escape. The disjointed nature of the two narratives only aids the chaos, as more background is slowly given the cold, sinking feeling of dread unfurls.
The female population has been reduced to nothing more than handmaids for want of a better word. They’re subjected to propaganda surrounding induction from a young age that glosses over the risks, with huge stress and expectation to go through it when they’re older. Women who don’t go through induction are labelled as “outs” and subjected to discrimination socially and economically. Outs will find their wages capped and their taxes increased, among other “punishments”. Those who opt for induction don’t fare much better, with treatment being taxing on the body and, at times, proving fatal. Before birth, women and their partners undergo training and workshops to ensure they’re ready to have a child. Post-birth, they live in fear of retribution from OSIP.
The book is an interesting look at women’s bodily autonomy. When it comes to having children, the choice is all but removed from the equation. Even Kit, who asserts she will never have children of her own, eventually succumbs to having one of her own. The societal pressure and expectation on women to have children is nothing new and is interestingly explored in the novel.
As far as the book goes, it was a good read, but it doesn’t really stick with you to make any lasting impression. It’s an interesting “what if” but isn’t explored as in-depth as I would’ve liked. Many things remain ambiguous, and the characters, Kit included lack nuance.