Title: Birthmarked (Birthmarked #1)
Author: Caragh O'Brien
Publisher: 30th March 2010
Released: Roaring Book Press
Rating: 4.5 stars
This book should come with a warning: Heartbreak ahead
Birthmarked was a book I had been thinking about since I first knew it existed several months ago, so I was pleased to get hold of a copy. I was even more pleased to find this was a book I enjoyed hugely. Injecting the dystopian genre with some new ideas, it definitely had me glued to the pages.
Society is divided between those who live inside the wall and those who live outside. Those inside enjoy a life of luxury and privilege, while those outside have to fend for themselves. Each month the first three babies born must be delivered to the Enclave, for which their mothers get compensation in return. Gaia Stone has always accepted this way of life until, on the day of her first delivery as midwife, she reaches home to find her parents arrested. Mystified as to why this could be, she becomes determined to reverse this injustice and get her parents back. She becomes doubly resolved when she learns that the quota of babies is to be raised. She breaks into the Enclave only to realise it’s not the perfect world she’s always thought it was, and that rescuing her parents may be more dangerous than it first seemed.
This was another book where I was pulled in right from the beginning. The first chapter immediately acquaints us with the laws of the Enclave and it quickly got an emotional reaction from me. I was pained to see a baby taken away from its mother and each protest from the helpless mother made me wince. What was sadder was that later on, it mentions how one mother Gaia attended was simply passive, knowing that her baby was not hers to keep. It showed that people were accepting of society and without fighting spirit, more a sense of hopelessness and resignation. The bond between mother and child is supposed to be the strongest of them all, yet here were the Enclave destroying that bond before it had even begun.
The idea of a baby quota, however, while painful, is still not one I have ever come across. I like that the book has some original ideas. It has that social division, yes, and that physical division to establish and emphasise it. What O’Brien has done is develop it so that the plotline takes on a scientific edge. Nor is it a far-fetched one. The author details well the consequences of having such a closed-off section of society; I was amused at how the undesirables turned out to be the ones that mattered most. It was interesting to see how, with all our knowledge of DNA now, the 24th century is only just reclaiming it.
You’d think it would be hard to like a character like Gaia Stone – someone who takes away people’s babies, naive in her youth of what she’s doing. But it was relatively easy to see where she was coming from; she, like many others, believed that the babies would have better lives inside the wall. But aside from that, even in the first chapter she had that little voice inside of her head, questioning and doubting. I liked that she was fierce, strong and independent. If she decided something was right or had to be done, she went ahead and did it regardless of the risk. She never gave up, instead bringing hope to others. Reading about her inquisitiveness at a young age made me laugh, but I was also admiring and respectful because it showed her to be perceptive and intelligent. I felt bad for her when she had to deal with reactions to her scar, and the relationship she had with her parents was heart-rendering. When I found out that the story behind her scar perhaps wasn’t what she thought, I immediately guessed the truth and gasped. I grieved with her over her parents. I feel like I’ve read too many books where one or both of the parents don’t live up to their role, so it was a joy to see it was not the case here. Nor were here parents ignorant or conforming – quite the contrary.
I loved how O’Brien created characters who really weren’t what they seemed, or even the Enclave, society inside the wall. Sephie surprised me, and I was particularly frustrated with Mace and Pearl because I didn’t understand why they were helping Gaia when they weren’t prepared to believe reality or act on what was happening. Leon...Leon. What can I say? He starts off as Sergeant Grey. When Gaia first meets him his eyes are hidden by the shadows, but ’she sensed an emptiness there that matched the controlled composure of his other features’. Yet I also sensed an edge to him that suggested he wasn’t so empty as he seemed. Leon is a complex mix of ruthlessness and gentility, coldness and compassion. He is haunted and bitter and in no way does he shy away from sacrifice. Granted, he was a bit foolish at times in his obvious behaviour, but this was a comparatively minor detail. My heart broke for him. For him and for Gaia. And for myself. Because this book does not have a happy ending.
If you like dystopia, this is for you. If you like a strong MC, this is for you. If you like relationships that are slow and subtle, this is definitely for you. Birthmarked has an engaging plotline that signals the problems of having too divided a society and the lengths an authoritative power might go to to maintain that division. Gaia’s journey had me caught alongside her, leaving me with no choice but to feel exactly what she felt and to learn who was reliable and who was not. And now I need to get down to the task of obtaining the second book. In the meantime, excuse me while I go anguish over the ending.