Speculative Fiction Books

Life before men: Vineetha Mokkil reviews Bina Shah’s ‘Before She Sleeps’

Dystopian fiction tells us as much about where we are headed as it does about where we currently are. Writers like Margaret Atwood and Leni Zumas can be credited with starting a feminist trend within speculative fiction. The Handmaid’s Tale or Zumas’s Red Clocks show us how easily women’s rights and bodily autonomy can be snatched away even in supposedly liberal set-ups.

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Before SheSleeps — Pakistani journalist and fiction-writer Bina Shah’s sixth novel — is set in a place where these rights had never been granted in the first place. Green City, a fictional place in South West Asia, survives a global nuclear fallout 70 years from now. Because a deadly virus has killed the majority of women in the City, the authorities parcel off the remaining women to husbands chosen by the ‘Perpetuation Bureau’. Women are left with no choice but to embrace state-sanctioned polygamy, turning into birthing machines to “bring an entire nation back to life”.

Sabine, the rebel protagonist, joins the Panah, an underground all-women outfit, to escape the clutches of reproductive slavery. The women in the Panah survive by providing an elite clientèle of men in Green City with their company, minus sex. They take on the emotional labour of soothing their male clients and lulling them to sleep.

Shah does a convincing job of explaining Green City’s inner workings. Well-chosen details transport the reader to a state-of-the-art city where patriarchy harnesses the full force of technology to enslave women. An impending sense of doom pervades the story from the start. The dread builds up in increments, leading to a terrifying climax. The novel grapples with topical themes such as gender oppression, reproductive rights, surveillance technology and the alarming rise of authoritarian regimes, but the world it orbits is a strictly heterosexual one. Not a single queer character is to be found in Green City — an absence I found rather perplexing.

That said, Before She Sleeps is a significant addition to the modern feminist dystopian fiction genre because it offers the rare non-Western perspective.

Before She Sleeps; Bina Shah, Pan Macmillan India, ₹599

The writer is the author of A Happy Place And Other Stories.

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Printable version | Mar 6, 2021 7:28:35 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/books/life-before-men-vineetha-mokkil-reviews-bina-shahs-before-she-sleeps/article33470261.ece

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