SCOTT MANLEY HADLEY REVIEWS
SEALED (DEAD INK BOOKS) BY NAOMI BOOTH
Sealed is Naomi Booth’s second book, following the 2016 Saboteur Award-winning novella The Lost Art of Sinking (Penned in the Margins). A full-length and fully-fledged novel, Sealed is a harrowing, engaging, moving and deeply thoughtful text about motherhood, anxiety, conservation and romantic relationships: in short, it’s an absolute fucking belter and – in contrast to the last book I reviewed here – exactly the kind of unique fiction that indie presses should be proud to publish. (NB: that’s the rule here: every book we review at Open Pen is published by an independent publisher.)
The novel is set in Australia in a near-future (like those X-Men films your dad likes), but in a deeply unpleasant one where environmental catastrophe has become the norm. The ozone layer is depleted and there are regular “heat events” that cause massive destruction, there are terrible storms, there is mass displacement due to these factors and – most significantly of all – there is an outbreak of a new, terrifying, disease: cutis. Cutis is horrific, and the kind of imaginary disease, imaginary death, that is written with such evocative detail here that it feels like it could already be a staple of dystopian horror. Cutis is a disease that causes the skin to begin healing where it is not needed to heal: over the ears, over the nostrils, over the eyes, over the anus, over the mouth… Cutis, the unproven myth goes, is the result of the pollutants in the air and in the water, it is evidence of the human body attempting to resist the horrors we have unleashed against our planet, it is the body sealing itself off from the world, but by doing so, by closing the apertures between our inside and our outside, it kills us: we suffocate, we go blind without understanding and panic ourselves into heart attacks; we are unable to shit and our body rots from within… Cutis is imaginative, disgusting, but painfully believable, in the way that great dystopian fiction always is: it isn’t quite our world, but it isn’t so far away that disbelief must be suspended in a way that limits an empathetic connection. Cutis is a modern fear rooted in an understanding of the very real dangers of environmental change. It is also – and this is where the novel’s true power comes from – significant textually because Alice, the novel’s protagonist, is pregnant, she is bringing new life into this dirty world. Already, at the novel’s beginning, there is life sealed within her flesh, and Alice’s anxieties about cutis combine with her anxieties about imminent motherhood. Booth successfully evokes the mind of a woman hurtling towards psychological collapse and her growing fears that are not as exaggerated as the people around her would like them to be. Sealed is a layered and complex text, pushing out in multiple directions and never failing to explore any of its threads with intelligence and emotional heft.
The premise of the present of the novel is that Alice and Pete – her on-off-on-again-off-again-oh-shit-I’m-pregnant-on-again boyfriend – have decided to leave the city in order to raise their forthcoming child in the countryside. Alice’s job in the city was working for the state, in the department for social housing, so she has seen evidence of cutis first hand. In her free time, she was running a blog detailing international rumours of the disease – her worries about cutis pre-date her pregnancy. When her mother died, Alice was convinced that the death was cutis, that it was being covered up, that the rapid spread of the disease was being covered up, and in grief she hooked up with her old boyfriend and ended up pregnant. As Alice nears term and arrives in the countryside, she sees more and more evidence to suggest that the supposedly safe place she has moved to may not be so safe after all, and even as she and Pete attempt to make friends with the locals, fear rises and Alice reminisces more about happier – and sadder – times of her life, and it is when Sealed passes the halfway point and these flashbacks become more regular that the book impressively lifts: the past[s] of Alice and Pete are fully and deeply realised, and within the 170 pages of this shortish novel there are whole, complex, lives.
Booth dives from a dystopian future to our own unpleasant present, she evokes youth and love and lust and regret and shame and heartbreak and grief and fear with great precision. Sealed moves us from childhood through to adulthood, in flashback, and as a reader we are present with Alice through every stage of her [varying levels of] dysfunctional relationship with Pete. We see her anxieties about cutis grow, we see her anxieties about motherhood grow and we see in detail the relationship she had with her own mother and the relationship her mother had with Pete (he and Alice grew up good neighbours and therefore (it is Australia) good friends). Through effective use of memory, we see Booth’s future world before it became poisonous, as it became poisonous and how it seems, here, now, that it is poisonous and dangerous to all who try to live within it.
This is a deeply physical text, with great and lengthy engagement with the body, both pleasure and pain, and rich descriptions of eyes and mouths and skin and skin and skin. The frequent references to the horrors of being sealed in, suffocated, by ones own flesh are intense and incredibly evocative. Booth’s horrors are physical ones, and the harrowing, inevitable, dénouement had me squawking in terror on a train. There are regular passages here that are funny, but Booth’s strength is in her descriptions of physical reality, of intense engagement with the body, with fear, with anxiety and with the importance of memory and the way we rewrite our pasts as we age.
Sealed is a treat of a read – emotional, engaged with real world problems, and very, very, human. Recommended.
Scott Manley Hadley was shortlisted for Best Reviewer at the Saboteur Awards 2017. Che-che-che-check out his moderately successful blog at TriumpoftheNow.com and luh-luh-luh-look up his unsuccessful (boo-hoo) web series on Facebook AND LIKE THE PAGE. #partytime