Review

Louise Erdrich's new book imagines horrors of childbirth in a dystopia

Louise Erdrich wrote the first drafts of Future Home after former United States president George W. Bush won the 2000 US election.
Louise Erdrich wrote the first drafts of Future Home after former United States president George W. Bush won the 2000 US election.PHOTO: HILARY ABE

Cedar Hawk Songmaker is pregnant and, in the dystopian world of Future Home Of The Living God, it is a blessing and a curse.

In an indeterminate future, evolution has begun moving backwards. Insects have taken on prehistoric form and "chickens are not chickens anymore - they look like pale iguanas". Perhaps the most chilling, however, is the uncertainty of Cedar's fate.

As healthy newborns become increasingly rare, a new Christian fundamentalist government urges pregnant women to turn themselves in and "give birth under controlled circumstances". Those who submit voluntarily "will receive the best rooms". Fail to do so and Cedar is likely to be captured anyway, under a policy of "gravid female detention".

It is a euphemism for brutal capture, happening casually outside fast food joints. Cedar watches a woman get taken away, "while in the sandwich shop your father watched his sandwich artisans construct my sub and answered questions like Wheat? Cheddar? Jalapeno?".

The closeness of the terror hits home. Louise Erdrich sets her 16th novel in the United States, but its First World setting feels like this could happen anywhere - or perhaps it is happening already.

Erdrich wrote the first drafts of Future Home after former United States president George W. Bush won the 2000 US election and blocked abortion funding; she revisited it after US President Donald Trump rose to power and threatened women's right to birth control.

Future Home is timely and important, but the plot is punctuated by loopholes. Several ideas are hinted at but not fully fleshed out, such as a quietly menacing woman called Mother who makes sporadic appearances, watching Cedar from her TV screen.

  • FICTION

  • FUTURE HOME OF THE LIVING GOD

    Louise Erdrich

    Harper Collins/Paperback/304 pages/$32.95/Books Kinokuniya

    3 stars

Still, there are quiet and wonderful moments where Cedar ruminates on the development of her baby, paying particular attention to its reproductive capabilities. "If you are a baby boy, watch out for migrating testicles… moving through your lower body to their perfect scrotal placement. If you're a girl, your clitoris is right out there, obvious, although your labia are very small yet, tiny flower," she writes in the early stages of her pregnancy.

The wonder of childbirth and reproduction stands in stark contrast to the horrors that can ensue when governments and organisations take these decisions out of women's hands.

If you like this, read: The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood (Vintage, 1985, reissued 2017, $29.95, Books Kinokuniya), a dystopian novel about women, or Handmaids, who exist for the sole purpose of reproduction. It was adapted into a series by television network Hulu last year.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 23, 2018, with the headline 'Horrors of childbirth in a dystopia'. Print Edition | Subscribe