Climate change is no longer something that can be denied by anyone at all. In Naomi Booth’s sharp, savvy second novel Sealed, the world has become hotter, and there’s a strange new disease that seems to be making people grow new skin over different orifices, eventually killing them by sealing them up inside their own epidermis.
Cutis, it’s called, and while the authorities claim it’s just one more thing to add to the nonchalant list of worries that people already have, from polluted fruit to smog to wildfires, pregnant Alice fears the worst. She’s obsessed with Cutis, and starts collection information not just about it, but also about what she thinks may be it, or what may have started the outbreak. She’s certain her mother died of it, she’s certain numerous people have died of it, far more than the authorities are admitting to, particularly those housed in relocation camps set up by the government for those who have been chased out of their homes by the effects of climate change—massive heatwaves, forest fires and the like. Climate change refugees, if you will.
Alice is heavily pregnant, and perhaps somewhat paranoid. Whether those two things are linked or not, or if it’s sexist to even think so or not, is entirely up to the reader to decide, but Alice’s partner Pete is certain that that’s all it is—a paranoia. He’s adamant that their move to a small town will be good for Alice and for the baby. Away from the city’s pollutants (and information), Pete thinks they’ll be able to live a peaceful, less stressful life. But Alice isn’t certain. The town itself is tiny, only partly occupied, its occupants not entirely friendly and openly surprised that anyone would choose to come here from the city. Alice’s paranoia grows, even as Pete (and a couple of his odd new friends) insist that she’s nothing but a pregnant, hormonally hysterical woman.
Is it paranoia? Is it the justified fears of an expectant mother about a collapsing world thanks to environmental damage, fears for what sort of world she’s will expose her child to as soon as it is born? Alice’s experience of being pregnant itself is an anxious, horrified one. There’s no denying that both pregnancy and childbirth can be frightening and violent, and Booth taps into these ideas effectively and evocatively:
‘Is it this choking feeling she remembers from being pregnant? The feeling that the world is full of dangerous things that might at any moment suffocate you? Or the physical sensation of being pushed around from the inside, every bit of your body newly tender and terrible? The feeling of a fist in your rectum, a foot against your bladder? Just this after noon, I saw something new rise up under the skin—not the baby, no, it was worse than that. It was some stranger triangular edge of my uterus flexing, when I tried to get up off the couch. A fin of cartilage under my own skin, hiding there, prehistoric, inside me. Is it this feeling she remembers, of being terrified of her body, of what it might be about to do, of what it has already done? Or is she remembering the best time of her bloody life?’
From an entirely scientific perspective (and also an editorial one), Booth isn’t quite able to make Cutis a believable disease. As horrifying as it is, it does require a great deal of suspension of disbelief to not question why people don’t realise what’s happening to them when their skin starts to seal over their orifices. Or does it happen overnight, in their sleep? If hospitals claim to simply be able cure people by cauterising their excess skin, is Cutis any worse than say, a wart? Perhaps this is all to make the reader doubt Alice’s fears—which one does, often. Her fears about climate change are valid, so perhaps she is right to wonder if Cutis the human body’s way of protecting itself from a poisonous environment.
Sealed is constantly stressful, terrifyingly believable most of the time, and horrific in many ways. There’s a feeling of impending doom from the very start—the very premise is enough to set make a reader feel anxious: heavily pregnant woman runs away to a small mountain village to escape a creepy disease in the city, only to find that there are strange things afoot there, too. Xenophobia is not the only thing to contend with in this odd little town, and anxiety levels build steadily and fast for both Alice and the reader. Booth is deftly adept at creating a near future, believable almost-dystopia, and at weaving together body horror, eco-horror and frightening real world situations. Because Alice is heavily pregnant though the entire novel, it’s no spoiler to say that Sealed peaks with one of the most visceral, intense, and raw childbirth scenes you’ll encounter in a long time.
This is an astute, worrying little novel, heavy with mood and thick with fears of the future of our planet, our bodies, our babies. And rightfully so.
Sealed is available from Titan Books.
Mahvesh loves dystopian fiction & appropriately lives in Karachi, Pakistan. She writes about stories & interviews writers for the Tor.com podcast Midnight in Karachi when not wasting much too much time on Twitter.