The harrowing and powerful debut novel from Vancouver writer Mallory Tater begins in September, or, as it is known in the world of the book, Arrival. Sable Ursu has just turned 18. “Everyone on our trail has been born in the same month for three generations since the Den was founded,” Sable explains. “Everyone celebrates their birth together.”
That’s not an accident: in the Den, the claustrophobic setting of the story, women’s lives are strictly controlled and moderated. They grow up going to lessons, but books and reading are forbidden and preparations for their futures are already well underway.
Sable serves as the reader’s eyes into a world all the more horrifying given its proximity: the Den isn’t a dystopian future, à la The Handmaid’s Tale – it’s a hyper-misogynistic version of the present, an intentional community founded in the early 1960s by a university professor called Lynx, who “focused keenly and cleverly on returning society to traditional roles” in contrast to the permissive values of what he calls Main Stream society.
Beginning at age 13, all the girls in the Den take a pill called DiLexa to regulate and synchronize their menstrual cycles. (When they are older, they are medicated into compliance and all members of the community are given a low-dose chemotherapy drug to slowly poison them, as no one is allowed to live to a greater age than Lynx.) “All girls receive beauty treatments at age fifteen to make us more perfect than we are born to be.” When they turn 18, they are “old enough to give birth.” Partners are selected for them, conception strictly monitored, pregnancy celebrated. Once the women are pregnant, they are sequestered in the Birth Yards until they return with babies.
Sable is of the fourth generation to be born at the Den, and while she doesn’t initially question much about her community, she demonstrates more independent thinking than is acceptable, including an undue curiosity about the Main Stream world and a loyalty to her intimate friends that supersedes her loyalty to her community. Her relationships with her sister and her friends – one of whom becomes pregnant illegitimately – allow for an examination of the intricacies of class, privilege, social attitudes, and familial relationships, along with insights into sexual violence and social shunning.
As the story unfolds – and especially when Sable is taken to the Birth Yard – the dangers that seemed abstract and theoretical become all too real. Although the first chapter is a bit heavy on exposition, The Birth Yard is a propulsive read that is able to keep its larger issues fully up front while at the same time telling a smaller, more intimate story of a young woman coming into her own, developing her strength and force against a world opposed to her. The novel is horrific in many ways, but the horror is one of recognition: Sable’s world is right next door – and all around us.