Book Review: Birthmarked by Caragh O’Brian

Publisher: Simon and Schuster Children’s Books

First Published: 30th March 2010

Format: Paperback

Pages: 361

Genre: Dystopian, YA

Recommended Reading Age: 16+

Rating: 6/10

Amazon/Goodreads

‘In the future, in a world baked dry by the harsh sun, there are those who live inside the walled Enclave and those, like sixteen-year-old Gaia Stone, who live outside. 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. Gaia has always believed this is her duty, until the night her mother and father are arrested by the very people they so loyally serve. Now Gaia is forced to question everything she has been taught, but her choice is simple: enter the world of the Enclave to rescue her parents, or die trying.’

I was quite excited to read Birthmarked, having read all the glowing reviews on it, and after hearing there was a young midwife as the heroine. Sadly, it turned out to be rather a disappointment.

Something just didn’t sit right with me with Birthmarked. The narration was just… awkward. It was overly descriptive, meandering, and felt forced. I can’t quite put my finger on why I didn’t get on with it, but I just felt distanced from the story and the characters. I found myself having to re-read sections to understand what was going on and still felt the plot line was clunky  – although perhaps my confusion could simply be due to the fact that Birthmarked just couldn’t hold my attention. My mind kept wandering.

The beginning was great and the concept certainly pulled me in. A young heroine, a midwife, is duty-bound to pass the first three babies she births every month over to the Enclave, a privileged society who live within an enclosed city. Hell yes I was interested. And the opening chapter was simultaneously distressing, tension-filled, disturbing and mysterious enough to grab my attention and make me excited for this book. But it all fell down pretty quickly from there on.

Unfortunately, Gaia, our protagonist, is a dull, stubborn, foolish character, with a naivety bordering on stupidity and there were several times where I just wanted to shake her and tell her that if she couldn’t quite manage intelligence, to at least use some common-sense! She is anxious when her parents are taken, but not especially concerned because she completely and utterly trusts the Enclave, even though they have an enforced quota of babies, forcibly taken from the poorer people living on the outskirts, all the while fully believing these people should feel proud and honored to serve their ‘betters’ in this way. Even though they threaten her and take her parents away with no explanations. Even then, Gaia seems to feel no twinges of distrust. Her reaction is to continue on with life as normal for a whole month, before coming to realise her parents might actually be in some danger.

Her mother smuggles out a ribbon to her daughter with a secret code on and rather than hiding it, Gaia decides to wear it in her hair, where, of course, it is promptly seen. She continues to believe in a perfect, idyllic life for all the advanced children, even after she sees and experiences first hand the realities of life inside the Enclave. She stubbornly refuses to believe that people might want to help her, even like her, despite her scarred face, no matter how many times they do to prove their worth. And for a midwife, albeit a young one, how she manages to miss certain signs pertaining to one character I don’t know. To say I found her character… frustrating would be an understatement. Gaia makes too many snap judgements and stupid choices, I have to admit I grew tired of her long before the end of the book. It doesn’t help that Gaia comes across as quite a cold, standoffish character, probably due to her issues over her disfiguring scar, but I found it hard to find any sympathy for her. At the end of the day, emotional attachment to the main protagonist is a must for me, and I just couldn’t bring myself to care for Gaia.

The plot does plod along and there is very little action – which may suit some people. Sadly, nothing much seemed to really happen in Birthmarked and the whole business with the ribbon, really the backbone of the story,  seemed out-dated given that this is set hundreds of years into the future (DNA testing is a wonderful thing folks) and rather anti-climatic, if not pointless. I felt it was given more importance than it should have been.

For a dystopian, the Enclave didn’t come across as threatening or overly oppressive in any way. I didn’t agree with the punishments and rules handed out by the Enclave, but their reasoning behind them is understandable, nor was I particularly shocked by their actions (as I think perhaps I was supposed to be), when dealing with a young couple who had broken the law. Nobody, inside or outside the wall was bothered by the fact that newborns were handed over and raised elsewhere, or by the fact that they were segregated in the first place – so why should I? Right at the end of the novel there is a line or two that mentions the beginnings of a revolution amongst the poorer areas, but I wanted to actually see and experience these feelings of growing unease rather than just have them briefly mentioned once the book is all but nearly over.

Birthmarked is a potentially interesting dystopian created by O’Brian which some will love (check out the many 4/5 star reviews on Goodreads), but one that fell flat for me. This review has focuses on what I found lacking, so comes across as very negative, but there were some good aspects too. I really liked Rita actually, and would love the second book to be narrated from her perspective. Despite the many issues I had, I am intrigued to enough to eventually pick up Prized when it comes out later this year, but I’ll be borrowing it.

If you’re a fan of the genre you should give it a go. It’s not a bad book, but one I found underwhelming. A shame, as a young midwife fighting a society that needs to take children to ensure their survival is the kind of story I could have really loved.

(This cover above isn’t of the UK book – though the publisher information matches my bought copy – as I couldn’t find a decent image of the UK version, and this one is much prettier anyway!)

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