Titan Books, 21 March 2021
Available as: PB, 368pp, e, audio
Source: Advance copy via NetGalley and audio subscription
I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance copy of Dark Lullaby via NetGalley, although in fact I actually listened to the audio edition as well.
I am intrigued by how Dark Lullaby is pitched in the marketing material (see, for example, the publisher's website here) which draws comparisons with The Handmaid's Tale. There is a similarity, in that both books are about a near-future, dystopian society that prioritises control of women and their fertility in the face of collapsing birthrates. And of course The Handmaid's Tale - the novel, its sequel and the spin-off TV series - is tremendously successful, and who wouldn't want a little bit of that?
But as I read it, Dark Lullaby is making rather different points, and it would be a shame to judge it only by the same dystopian yardstick as Margaret Atwood's book.
In the world of Dark Lullaby, an avowedly authoritarian Government has taken control of the UK, or at least England, where the novel is set. Very little is said about wider political events, so one can't tell where we are in relation to Brexit, say, or whether the UK is intact, and it's not really clear how this government came to power or maintains its power. Surveillance seems pretty universal, although the book explores this mainly in the context of childcare and tracking parents, and opposition is minimal. It is a world slightly distinct from ours in the deployment of "spheres" - work-spheres, go-spheres and spheres in public places - as both network access, and by implication, surveillance devices. They seem to resemble the telescreens from Nineteen Eighty Four more than our mobiles, laptops and smart TVs in that they broadcast an endless spew of propaganda, perhaps partly tailored to what is is said and done around them.
Like authoritarian nations regimes the world over, the government in this future prioritises control over women's' fertility and seeks to mobilise them to address the population fall. For unknown reasons, the birthrate has been falling and natural conception is now difficult or impossible. Woman are coerced to undergo invasive and dangerous treatments described as "induction" in order to conceive. Participation in these is not (yet) mandatory, although things seem to be moving that way, with income, housing and work roles increasingly limited for the "outs" - those who decline to take part.
Kit has been an "out" although since meeting her now-husband Thomas, she has changed her mind and they now have a baby, Mimi. However, that's only the start of the nightmare for the couple. The focus on fertility doesn't end at birth, with an entire department of the government - "OSIP", the Thought Police of this world - devoted to monitoring standards of childcare. Unfortunately, OSIP's role doesn't seem to extend to offering any practical support, advice or help for struggling parents (struggling mothers) rather it issues judgmental warnings over the slightest infraction and then, when sufficient of these have accumulated, sweeps in to take the child away ("extraction").
The most powerful parts of the novel focus on the feelings of parents (principally mothers, and especially Kit) in light of this situation. This is I think where Dark Lullaby really becomes a different book from its dystopian predecessors. Parenthood is always a series of muddles and mistakes (Philip Larkin's poem on the subject is well known). Twenty five years on, as a new parent, I can still remember my panic when the community midwife was due to visit for an inspection and Daughter produced an epic wet poo (in jets) while being changed, creating an awful mess which required an immediate bath. Immediate chaos and disorder, terror at how things would look.
It already goes with the territory to feel judged, to be all at sea as to whether what one is doing is right, fearful from moment to moment that the little scrap of humanity you are suddenly responsible for will just... stop. At the same time you're sleep deprived, probably socially isolated and your life has been turned inside out. New mothers especially are under incredible stress, and of course have also gone through the physical ordeal of giving birth.
Polly Yo-Hen's novel captures the wretchedness of this situation perfectly, showing the stories of not one, not two, but three families sequentially in this plight, on whom the pitiless minions of OSIP then prey. Told in alternate sections simply entitled "Now" and "Then" it follows Kit and Thomas in some, initially unexplained, flight (but without baby Mimi) (the "Now") and in their earlier lives, meeting one another, falling in love, agonising over whether to have kids ("Then"). Those earlier sections also show us the agony of the other families featured here, with its inevitable conclusion. The format works well for the most part, although I found it a little frustrating how long we're kept waiting to have the exact situation in the "Now" part explained. The format especially allows plenty of time to establish the dilemma faced by Kit by showing how things work out - or don't - for those other families. By the time we come to the endgame, we understand the stakes for Kit, Mimi and Thomas only too well and appreciate just how impossible things really are, the book then giving us an ending that's truly heartbreaking.
As a thriller, the story works very well - perhaps it's a little too dependent on coincidence to smooth things along (but what thriller isn't?) - but as I've suggested above, it really comes into its own as an exploration of the sense of stress, guilt and inadequacy that haunts parents even if they have the best support imaginable. Many in our world have far worse than that, but in Kit's world everything seems set up to undermine and belittle.
Every parent who's thought at one time or another "just take her, take this baby, I can't do this" (and that means every parent I think) will empathise with Kit in her troubles. That gives the story true heart, although it doesn't make it an easy read (and readers whose experiences are simply too raw may simply find it too much).
I would recommend, but do be aware that this isn't, always, a comfortable read.
I listened to most of this book on audio. Eva Feller's crisp narration perfectly captures Kit's balance between meltdown and iron emotional control, necessary for her just to carry on, with the almost shouted section heading ("NOW!" and "THEN!") punctuating the story like gunshots.