I loved the first book in this trilogy (The Book of the Unnamed Midwife), the “origin” story of the collapse of civilization when most women die in a plague, and the heroism of the unnamed protagonist, who records her survival – and transmits her midwifery skills to ensure the next generation. Although I was uneasy about the portrayal of men as either bullies/gangleaders/rapists or gay, I went along with it for the sake of the story, which was as gripping (it won the Philip K. Dick Award) as it was grim. The second installment, The Book of Etta, was also grim, for many of the same reasons, but intrigued me with its treatment of LGBTQ folks in a world where controlling women’s bodies and maximizing their fertility are the keys to humanity’s survival.
Flora, a transwoman and silk weaver from Etta, is the central character in the third book. The story is just as dramatic, with a cast of intriguing characters, strong narrative prose, and a nice balance of pacing. Yet I found myself with increasing resistance to the portrayal of men and of relations between the sexes (however many sexes there are). Some of this may have been due to recently reading several of Alexander McCall Smith’s The Number One Ladies Detective Agency novels, set in Uganda, which include some of the most genuinely good, kind men in contemporary literature. Maybe America goes the way of savagery, but it was hard for me to imagine someone like Obed Ramotswe or Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni behaving that way. Afrofuturism may point the way to a compassionate path through dystopia. At any rate, The Book of Flora kept me turning the pages, but it isn’t a world I’d ever want to live in, which is not the purpose of literature, anyway. I’m glad to have ventured into Elison’s dark, terrifying future, and see this trilogy as an important contribution to the examination of power, sex, gender, and culture.