Juliette Wade’s newest novella, set in her underground world of Varin, begins with what must surely squick out a certain percentage of male readers: a woman beginning her menstrual flow. But this is Varin, not Earth, and everything that looks familiar runs orthogonal to our expectations. The plight of Lady Selemei, who has now recovered sufficiently from her last, near-fatal childbirth to become pregnant again, must be understood in light of her technologically advanced yet highly stratified cavern-dwelling society. She is not a 21st Century Earth woman, and yet her situation must surely resonate with every woman who has thought for a heart-stopping moment that she might have an unplanned, unwanted pregnancy.
Selemei has few choices in the matter: forbidden to use or even possess information about contraception, and expected to churn out baby after baby for her caste in the hope that some of them might be healthy enough to survive, it seems her fate is sealed. If this description evokes of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, the resonances are deep rather than superficial. Selemei’s husband truly loves her, and the couple enjoys a rich and satisfying sexual relationship. She is not disposable in his eyes, or in her own. Celibacy to preserve her life is a an unappealing option. The two of them concoct a strategy to challenge the laws regarding contraception for their caste, within the limited circumstance of risk to the mother’s life. While insufficient in 21st Century terms, this represents a historic break with Varin tradition, certain to provoke fierce resistance. Whether in the chambers of the ruling council or a tea party for aristocratic ladies, or the simple fact that she cannot walk unaided, Selemei faces daunting obstacles.
The story’s strengths rely on the nuanced portrayal of the characters and the subtleties of their distinct, sometimes alien cultural context. In this sense, Selemei’s dilemma is not that of the Handmaids in Atwood’s tale or poor women throughout the world who lack affordable, effective birth control. It’s as much a love story as it is a political narrative. Never preachy, Wade invites the reader to draw conclusions not by diatribe but by following Selemei’s emotional journey. Courage comes in many different forms.
The painting is "Anxiety" by Edvard Munch.