“I’d felt it too, the too-muchness of being in love. But I hated Pete for it at the same time. I hated his freedom and how guiltlessly he lived, how easily he took love and gave love, and how much danger he’d put me in. And most of all, I hated that he might be right, that he was living the right way and that I was wrong: too frightened, too careful, too guarded to really enjoy life.”
Sealed, by Naomi Booth, is set in a near future Australia. Rising temperatures have brought with them storms and deadly heat events. Wild fires, pollution and other environmental catastrophes make day to day living uncomfortable for all.
Alice and her partner, Pete, are expecting their first child. With less than a month to go before the baby is due they leave the city, its toxic air and growing climate of fear. They move from their cramped apartment to a remote house overlooking the Blue Mountains. It is planned as a fresh start in cleaner air, somewhere to establish their little family.
Alice has recently lost her mother. She lives in fear of a new condition known as cutis which causes skin to grow where it should not. People have died and Alice suspects a cover-up as few cases are being reported. Pete believes she is looking for problems that do not exist.
The government is trying to manage the growing threats from all quarters by moving its poorer citizens into camps where they may be cared for, monitored and controlled. As part of her job in the city housing department, Alice had visited one such camp during its regular inspection. Privately run, it ensured records of residents’ health and behaviour reflected only good practice. Detailed causes of death were not disclosed, the manager citing reasons of patient confidentiality.
Pete is excited at the prospect of fatherhood. He becomes frustrated when Alice fixates on what he regards as imaginary threats and conspiracies. Eager to fit in he befriend locals. They question why he has taken Alice from the city to a place such as this but will not explain to her what they mean. They regard Alice as a killjoy as they try to make the best of a situation they cannot change. Pete dismisses Alice’s concerns as the irrational behaviour she agreed to leave behind. She mingles with their new acquaintances but cannot put aside her fears.
“She gasps with laughter and I can’t help it, it’s totally contagious, I’m not even stoned and I start to laugh a bit too. She squeezes my hand again. This is how I used to make friends, when I didn’t see every person and every place as a contagion to be guarded against.”
With Alice’s due date approaching she tries to register for medical care but what little exists is already overwhelmed. Alice tells Pete she believes she spotted a case of cutis. He does not wish to face such a possibility.
The tension in the story builds as Alice and Pete’s backgrounds are revealed. The reader cannot be sure if her paranoia is justified, if there is any point in fighting back given the wider situation. The climax is reached when Alice goes into labour. The denouement is horrifying yet somehow inevitable.
As with the best dystopian fiction this is a parable for today. The reader fears what is being gradually revealed yet cannot look away. Government reactions are all too believable.
A tale that I flew through and shuddered at the possibilities presented. By the end both Alice and Pete’s behaviours are better understood, the outcome as complex as the circumstances all had to deal with. As grotesque as the premise may be, this is a compelling read.
My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Dead Ink.