Review: Bithmarked, by Caragh M. O'Brien

I quite enjoy the afflux of distopian novels in young adult literature that has been happening these past few years and I've been trying to read as many as I can, or at least read about such novels, as there is something quite fascinating in the high interest and growing following these books garner within the teen community (as well as others, like me, who enjoy young adult literature). The first book I read in 2011 was such book: Birthmarked, by Caragh M. O'Brien.

Far in the furture, after extreme climate changes, society is now divided between those who live inside the wall, a rich, abundant and luxuriant city, and those who live outside the wall, like our heroine Gaia Stone, poor, often malnourish but hard working people. Gaia is a sixteen years old midwife, who has learned everything she knows from her mother. Every month she needs to "advanced" a quota of babies, to be taken into the Enclave (inside the wall) to be raised there by new parents. Things go well for Gaia, until one night where she witnesses the agonizing pain of a mother who refuses to let go of her baby, and where her parents are taken prisoners into the Enclave. Now alone, Gaia is determined to find her parents, and in the process is herself arrested and imprisoned. Gaia is then faced with difficult moral choices, and the even more difficult task of unraveling the layers of secrets of this cruel, well-organized society she inhabits.

The world of Bithmarked, with, at its core, problems and issues of fertility and genetics can easily remind the reader of such book as The Handmaid's Tale, by Margaret Atwood or Children of Men, by P. D. James, but it also has its own  mythology, its own flavor that makes it different. Gaia, who was badly scarred on one side of her face in her childhood, is a strong-willed and stubborn heroine. She does not hesitate to take risks for what she thinks is the right things to do, no matter the consequences. She has complete faith in her ideals. Her scars prevents her from ever being "advanced", from being able to one day live in the Enclave, so she is totally devoted to her life and her people outside the wall, but even more to her work as a midwife. These scars also afford her a certain vulnerability, of feeling ugly or undesirable that teenage girls, especially, are able to identify with. Nevertheless, I feel it was never taken too far as to be self-pity or over dramatized. Gaia has also learned to live with these scars.

There is a love story in this book, as it seems is de rigueur for any YA book these days, and I must admit I am quite picky about those. I am very difficult to please in this matter, and more often than not, romantic relationships in YA novels make me want to roll my eyes, if not abandon a book althogether. I was then, pleasantly surprised to not have been bothered by the romance in Bithmarked so much. I even quite enjoyed it in parts. While I felt that the male character was interested in Gaia a bit too fast, and maybe a bit too conveniently as it was quite pivotal for the story later on, and that the romance teetered on overtaking the third part of the novel, it never quite did so. More importantly, it never took over Gaia. Too often in YA novels, our strong-willed, determined and independent heroines get taken over by the romance (or by quite creepy male love interests) and loose all of their interesting flavor. Not so in this book. I always felt that Gaia knew what she had to do and kept her eyes and mind focused on her goals even as her heart might have wanted to lead her astray. Her love interest also had a position of power over her, but she never quite let him overpower her as well, which made me want to cheer her on. So while some things bothered me about this aspect of the novel, I was quite pleased in how Caragh M. O'Brien handled this stapled of YA plot and storytelling.

Bithmarked was a quick read, often exciting and riveting to me, a great way to start the year. I am looking forward to its sequel Prized due out in November of this year.

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