47North Books, February 21, 2017.
This novel is the second of the Road to Nowhere series, and the sequel to the fantastic, original novel, The Book of the Unnamed Midwife. Although it’s possible to read The Book of Etta on its own, I think you would get much more out of the novel by reading them in order. In the first book, the Unnamed travels across the United States after a shocking epidemic has destroyed the world as we know it today. Most of the world’s population is gone, and of the survivors, only one in ten are female. Childbearing is extremely dangerous, and women are in high demand, although they are mostly objectified as slaves.
Etta’s story takes place about a century after the Unnamed Midwife finally settled in a former army barracks, now known as the village of Nowhere. The inhabitants of the village live in relative safety, and many of the women have been able to survive childbirth – in fact, being a Mother is the most valuable thing a woman can be, creating a sort of throwback to our own past. The Unnamed has become a folk hero for the villagers, although her story has been distorted over the years. Like her, everyone in Nowhere keeps a journal of their experiences in this new world – but Etta has a hard time writing about her life, because she has a secret.
Etta’s mother wants nothing more for her daughter than for her to reproduce and become honoured and valued as a Mother. However, Etta wants more from her life, so she works as a scavenger, exploring outside the city gates for extended periods of time. Like the Unnamed Midwife, Etta finds it easier to travel if she is disguised as a man – so when she is on the road, she becomes Eddy. The disguise is ostensibly for safety, but more importantly, Eddy is a transgender man who only feels like his true self when he’s on the road.
Eddy scavenges for supplies, but he also tries to rescue the young girls being held by slave traders – if he paid for them, it would encourage the trade to grow larger, so he takes the girls by force, and brings them back to join the community of Nowhere. At home, Eddy reverts to his role as Etta, but even then, she does not fit into the traditional female roles provided for her. She sneaks away to visit her girlfriend Alice – they must hide their relationship because women should be breeding with men. Even homosexuality between men is disallowed in Nowhere – the most important priority is to have children, and individual sexual preferences are strongly discouraged.
This novel explores the complexities of gender and sexuality against the backdrop of a post-apocalyptic world where women are commodities and men are either dangerous or disposable. It is a gritty, stark look at humanity, especially in light of the misogynistic political world we now live in. Etta’s world is very dark and certainly dystopian, but it also showcases several different communities that are attempting to forge a new path in this world. Although not all of them are successful – and some are brutal and shocking – there are elements of hope here too. Unlike in The Book of the Unnamed Midwife, there are no longer any ties to our world, but history – and the subjugation of women – is still repeating, making it feel depressingly like an inevitable part of humanity.
Once again, this second novel in the Road to Nowhere series is an imaginative, unpredictable story. It is filled with the kind of powerful writing that you can get completely caught up in, letting Etta’s world sometimes feel more real than our own. The third and possibly final book in this series will follow Flora, an unusual, passionate woman that Etta meets on her travels. With Flora’s story, I’m sure we will once again see a thoughtful exploration of gender identity in a world that is so different and yet eerily similar to our own. I can’t wait to read it.
I received this book from 47North Books and NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.