Tuesday, 23 August 2011

Birthmarked

Birthmarked by Caragh O’Brien (Simon and Schuster)
PB RRP $16.99
ISBN 978-085707139-2
Reviewed by Peta Biggin

In the future, in a world baked dry by the harsh sun, there are those who live inside the walled Enclave and those who live outside.  Sixteen-year-old Gaia Stone lives outside.  As a toddler, she was disfigured by burns to her face.  This has left her with few friends and little romantic prospects.  Following in her mother’s footsteps Gaia has become a midwife; delivering babies in the world outside the wall and handing a quota over to be “advanced” into the privileged society of the Enclave.  She has always believed this to be her duty, until the night her parents are arrested by the very people they serve.  Now she has no choice but to rescue her parents.  Soon she discovers that the Enclave is not as perfect as it appears.

Within the Enclave Gaia learns that her father has been executed and her pregnant mother has been imprisoned.   She discovers that her mother was arrested because of secret records she kept of all the births she attended.  The records have been written in code and Gaia is forced to help break that code to assist with the Enclave’s efforts to stem the amount of inbreeding that is occurring.

She is also presented with the last thing she was expecting: love.  Leon, the disgraced son of the Protectorate proves himself to be an unlikely ally, but Gaia eventually learns that his motivations are more than just altruistic.  Because of the scars on her face, Gaia has grown up believing that she is unlovable, except by her parents.  It takes her some time to accept Leon’s attentions for what they are.  When he sacrifices himself to ensure her safety, it drives Gaia to embrace her future; desiring to be worthy of his actions.

The society created in Birthmarked is almost feudal – with a labouring class supporting a privileged few.  Acceptance of the rules is the only real ticket to happiness for those outside the walls – and, as we discover later in the story, for those within the Enclave as well.  It survives because there is nothing else around it; other societies are only rumours.  Like any good dystopian fiction, there is something inherently believable about the futuristic world portrayed in the story.
 
Although all of the characters were well rounded, I particularly found Gaia a terrific character.  Her ordeals within the Enclave see her transition from meek and subservient to courageous and confident.  However, as a romantic at heart, I was a little disappointed that her romance with Leon was so short lived.

The book does not come with the happiest ending.  Knowing that her father has died she manages to rescue her heavily pregnant mother only to watch her die during childbirth.  She and her newborn sister only escape through Leon’s sacrifice and she must leave without him.  Gaia embarks on an unknown future outside the community she knows with a small bundle of supplies and only the hope that she will find other people. 

I finished reading this book in a very short amount of time (for me); not because it was a light read, but because I was totally carried away with the story.  There is much to like about this book: it is original, has great characters and provides a thrilling read.  Anyone who has enjoyed The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins or Gone by Michael Grant will certainly enjoy Birthmarked.
  
Since earning an MA in writing at Johns Hopkins University, Caragh O’Brien has published several adult romance novels.  Birthmarked is her first novel for young adults and was nominated for The Young Adult Library Services Association Best Fiction for Young Adults.  The follow-up novel, Prized, is due for release later in 2011.

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