By Polly Ho-Yen
Published by Titan Books
ISBN-10: 1789094259, ISBN-13: 978-1789094251
Buy this book from Amazon UK
Dark Lullaby, by Polly Ho-Yen, is a story about a dystopian society suffering mass, unexplained infertility. Yet I found the premise and world, even for a dystopia, somewhat unsatisfying.
Dark Lullaby is not set in an outlandish future, but in the UK and close to the present day. It seems only to have taken a couple of decades to unpick democracy. Britain is now a one-party state. Orwellian TV spheres blast out news propaganda. The rich live in gated communities outside the city, the less wealthy in cramped sections of the city.
New mothers are under the scrutiny of the Office of Standards in Parenting (OSIP). This is a government division with the power to hand out penalties for bad parenting, with plain-clothes recruits everywhere, and to swoop into your home for an inspection at any time. Examples of bad parenting are simple things that could elicit judgment today: feeding a baby formula milk, a toddler having a meltdown in public, a baby getting sick, or dressing your baby too warmly in someone else's opinion. Collect seven penalties, and your baby is 'extracted' – taken away from you for its own safety and sent to live in the 'compounds' somewhere. It's a nanny state nightmare, and for some reason people put up with this.
The story is told by a young woman, Kit. Despite being uninterested in conceiving for much of her life, and witnessing OSIP hauling away the babies of her friends and family, Kit and her husband rapidly decide to have a baby after getting married. The story is told through two alternating narratives – the past, and the present – which keep the plot moving swiftly and adds an element of intrigue. We follow her past journey to her decision and its predictable consequences – and the present day where she is without her daughter and on a ragged, desperate journey to reclaim her.
But how to conceive in the first place? The cause of, and solution for, infertility, the book emphasises, is placed squarely on women. Male infertility is mentioned and dismissed in one or two sentences. It's women who have to undergo 'induction', the sole fertility treatment ever mentioned. Induction appears to involve ovarian stimulation and egg harvesting, though the process is scarcely described more than that. It is repeatedly described as dangerous, even fatal. It has a 30 percent chance of success, and women usually have to undergo eight to nine rounds. Most people in the book seem to know a young woman or two who have died from induction. Again, characters just accept this, and show a remarkable lack of scientific curiosity, outrage, or terror. Women are also heavily encouraged to undergo induction by the increase of taxes and restrictions on career progression, in a neat twist on today's difficulties for working mothers.
There is an alternative, the book teases – babies made by genetic engineering and gestated in artificial wombs. But the process is very expensive, and therefore only available to the ultra-wealthy. This method was simply dismissed in the book, despite there being 'a 99.98 percent infertility rate'. That's right. This was one of a few significant details quickly waved away by the author, and frustratingly so.
Dark Lullaby was always destined to be compared to The Handmaid's Tale, with a dash of 1984. However, the ruthless, totalitarian societies described in those books also came with deadly enforcement. They were made more plausible by the religious or political frameworks that created and protected the inhumane laws of those societies. Not so in Dark Lullaby. People protest low wages, but they don't protest OSIP.
As adults, Kit and her sister Evie, parrot the same lines of propaganda they were taught in school to each other. Nobody even doubts whether unknown compounds are the best places for extracted babies. Where are the rebels? The questioners? The older women who still remember the world as it was? The grown compound babies? Heck, where are the conspiracy theorists? The politics of the ruling party are scarcely mentioned or challenged. Total infertility, the author suggests, is the only thing needed to make this dystopian scenario happen, to make everyone act in incurious, obedient ways. How much you enjoy the book might depend on how much you agree.
Eventually a secret reveals why people put up with OSIP snooping around stealing babies. Did I think the reason was convincing? For some individuals, sure. But I didn't think it would be enough to maintain order throughout a society. There is a pervasive blandness to the world built in Dark Lullaby, because of its focus on the narrow central story – the lengths mothers will go to for children – at the expense of interesting characters or world building details.
Overall Dark Lullaby is very much a story about women. Women being coerced to have babies, to suffer damaging treatment, to endure a maddening level of scrutiny, to be gaslighted by the state into believing they are bad mothers. Husbands and fathers barely get fleshed out. I didn't find it likely enough to be shocking, its tone not knowing enough to be satire. While I didn't guess the twist at the end of the book, I also wasn't particularly surprised by it. But it's a readable, sinister story, and you will want to keep reading to find out the conclusion to Kit's desperate journey.
Buy Dark Lullaby from Amazon UK.