Book Review: Before She Sleeps by Bina Shah (2018)

Tuesday, November 13th, 2018

I had such high hopes for this one!

two out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free e-ARC for review through Netgalley. Trigger warning for violence against women, including rape.)

When I got to the Panah, I was unused to the sight of women’s bodies not swollen and distorted by pregnancy. It seemed wrong, at first, as if something was missing. It took me months to realize that a woman’s stomach wasn’t always convex; that its default state was not always filled with another being.

DNF at 59%, because life is too short to spend time on books that just aren’t doing it for you.

Set in the kind-of distant future, Before She Sleeps imagines a world wherein women are a scarce commodity. Nuclear war and climate change have drastically altered the landscape of South West Asia (and, indeed, the world), while a gender-specific virus has wiped out a majority of its female citizens. In the resulting chaos and power vacuum, an authoritarian order known as the Authority seized control.

Within the borders of Green City, life is strictly regimented – for everyone, but women especially. Women are not allowed to: work outside the home, keep journals, choose their own husbands (or number thereof), or use contraception, obtain abortions, or engage in family planning of any sort. They are required to maintain public profiles, so that men can shop for them online like so many consumer goods (unlike laptops, though, women cannot be bought or sold – only the Perpetuation Bureau can assign a Wife a new Husband); undergo rigorous and routine physical exams, including fertility monitoring; and accept as many Husbands – and pregnancies – as the Bureau deems fit.

It’s the inverse of fundamentalist Mormons, yet somehow women get the short end of the stick in this arrangement too (shocking, that!). Ostensibly, women are precious cargo to be treated with care and respect: in Green City, “it [is] a capital crime to hit or abuse a woman.” However, rape is a de facto part of the marriage system, as women are not permitted to choose their partners, nor deny them “life-giving” sex. After all, that is a woman’s sole purpose in society: to bear as many children as possible.

Yet girls and women still find ways to resist. Some children hide messages for each other, illicit forms of communication in a society where females are given precious little opportunity to interact with one another. On the more extreme end are the runaways, the fugitives, the disappeared women. Some of these women find their way to the Panah, a refuge located in a long-forgotten underground bunker on the outskirts of town. There they work as escorts, but instead of sex, they deal in emotional intimacy, something sorely lacking in these modern, dystopian marriages. Within this backdrop, we meet Lin, the niece of one of the Panah’s founders; Sabine, who escaped an early marriage arranged by her own father; and Rupa, who longs to return to society, despite the miseries it rained down upon her as a girl.

Before She Sleeps sounds like it should be right up my alley: I love dystopias, doubly so if they have a feminist bent, and I am a total Margaret Atwood fangirl. (Comparisons to The Handmaid’s Tale never fail to reel me in.) This seemed like a slam dunk. And, while I adore the concept, the actual execution left much to be desired. For lack of a more eloquent way of putting it, Before She Sleeps just didn’t do it for me.

Each chapter alternates between a different character’s perspective. This was all fine and good when it was just Lin, Sabine, and Rupa – but once Shah tossed in a few of Green City’s male denizens mid-book, it got to be a little too much for me. Moreover, I never really got a sense of each character’s distinct personality; the overall writing style felt pretty uniform across chapters. Oftentimes the character’s physical reactions felt overdone to the point of a bad B movie script. When imagining how some scenes might play out, all I could picture were comically terrible improv actors. Cringe-worthy doesn’t begin to describe it.

There are also quite a few info dumps – which, it must be said, isn’t always a mood killer for me, but here they often popped up in weird and awkward places. To wit: As Reuben races across town to retrieve his illicit mistress’s illegal girl, passed out unconscious in the street and maybe dying of who knows what, his thoughts randomly wander to … how he became one of the most powerful men in Green City? I mean, seriously! More likely that train of thought would go something like this: “OH SHIT OH SHIT OH SHIT FUCK WHAT AM I GONNA DO WE ARE SO FUCKED OH SHIT PLEASE DON’T LET THERE BE A RED LIGHT OH FUCK ME FUCK THIS FUCK EVERYTHING I AM TOO OLD FOR THIS SHIT I NEED A VACATION.”

So, yeah, file this one in the “devastating disappointment” drawer. Bummer!

(This review is also available on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you’re so inclined!)