Thursday, May 27, 2010

Book Review: Birthmarked by Caragh M. O'Brien





Title: Birthmarked
Author: Caragh O'Brien
Genre: Dystopian Fiction
Publication Date:  March 30, 2010
Publisher: Roaring Brook Press
ISBN-13: 9781596435698

Source: Checked out from local public library.

Birthmarked Birthmarked by Caragh M. O'Brien


My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Gaia’s mother served the Enclave as a midwife, advancing three babies per month into the Enclave, forever separating them from their biological parents. Until one evening when she and Gaia’s father were arrested by guards of the Enclave. Gaia comes home that night after serving as a midwife and delivering her first baby to the Enclave, to discover her parents gone and an Enclave soldier waiting in her house. After questioning her about her mother and records her mother supposedly kept, he leaves, but her parents don’t return. Gaia has always served the Enclave well, but now she must risk everything to set her parents free. Little does she know...the Enclave is waiting.

I will admit to some difficulty writing about this book because my feelings are mixed. On a quality level this book is exceptional, but on a personal level I found this book a bit hard for me to get into. For some reason, it just wasn’t holding my interest. It reminded me of the many times I have had to read a piece of classic literature for a class.

I have always had difficulty getting into and reading the classics. Despite their toted quality, or perhaps because of it, I have always had a hard time reading them—they don’t hold my interest long. This book, like so many classics demonstrates a quality of writing and idea that remind me of reading those classic novels. I am not saying that this book will endure or that it will become a piece of classic literature; statistically speaking I know it most likely won’t. What I am saying, in a rather longwinded manner, is that like the classics, I found it difficult to force myself to read this book.

I have always been at odds with the classics. I understand their value and ultimately appreciate their moral and story. Still that doesn’t make them any easier for me to read. Likewise, for Birthmarked, I appreciated the writing and the value of the story, but had a next to impossible time attempting to read it. I kept putting it down. It wasn’t until near the end when the urge to set this book aside passed.

That said I am glad that I endured, and finally finished Birthmarked because it is worth every effort. This book is dystopian fiction at its best. Gaia lives in a world where the poor live outside the wall and are subject to the laws and governance of the rich inside. Outside there a people who struggle to survive, and parents who must give up their newborns. Inside there are wealthy who want for nothing and raise children not their own. The poor don’t rebel because their own children live inside the Enclave, and some of their children serve in the Enclave guard.

O’Brien’s characterizations were excellent. Gaia is a well developed and likable character and you want to cry with her, when things go wrong. Gaia, who is scarred, is considered a “freak” both inside and outside the walls of the Enclave. According to them she is a girl who should be pitied because she is not perfect, but Gaia’s strength is that she is determined not to let her deformity hinder her. The other character who features heavily in this novel is Leon, who you don’t know quite as well and have doubt as to whether you can trust him. He too is an intriguing character. In Gaia’s world people aren’t always what they appear to be, and you don’t know who you can really trust.

On a side note I did find O’Brien’s penchant for obscure vocabulary to be a bit distracting at times. For example here are four words (out of many) that I found that were a bit unusual:
confabulate (pg. 22)
redolent (pg. 232)
inured (pg. 233)
troglodyte (pg. 287)
These aren’t words that you normally find in modern text or even in everyday conversation. I don’t think I have come across the word troglodyte since studying for the SAT in high school. In fact, if you Google these four words together don’t be surprised when your first results are vocabulary lists for the SAT and GRE. If I hadn’t known O’Brien was a high school English teacher before, after reading the unusual vocabulary she used I could have guessed. In a way, O’Brien seems to have found a new way to “teach for the test.” However awkward these vocabulary lessons may be, they somehow fit with the text.

In the end I would have to say that I liked this book. It was unpredictable both in vocabulary and in plotting events. You never knew where it was going to take you. Even at the end when I thought I knew the characters and could predict what they would do next, it never failed to take me by surprise.

Overall I would recommend this book to those who like dystopian fiction as a possible must read. If you aren’t a dystopian fiction fan, I would consider checking it out from the library before you purchase it.

View all my reviews

Discussion Questions:

1. When reading dystopian, the scary aspect is thinking, "Could this happen one day?" Did you ask yourself this while reading Birthmarked ? Do you think a future like this is possible?

  • It is always a question you ask when reading dystopian lit. You really want to know what happened to make their world become like it is. What choices did they make to get from where we are here today, to where they are? Anything is possible, but I hope that we will have the presence of mind to avoid this type of catastrophe. I hope that people wouldn't let their freedoms be taking away in such a manner.



2. How did the puzzle aspect of the story work for you? Did you figure out the code or was the explanation a surprise? Does this element work for you in a story or is there one you like/appreciate more?
  • I did figure out pieces of the code. I knew the letters could be seen between the lines--I have always liked those kinds of puzzles. I don't know for sure how I feel about the puzzle aspect. It was the puzzle that saved Gaia's life--they would have killed her if they didn't need her to solve it for them. Sometimes in stories I like puzzles, sometimes they are distracting. In this book it was a necessary element of her plot, but I didn't have any feelings for it either way.



3. Gaia follows in the steps of her mother as a midwife. For Gaia in the beginning its service and only later does she realize what taking the babies signifies. Can you put yourself in the mother’s role, what would you do if Gaia tried to take your newborn?
  • This was the hardest part of reading this story for me. On page 22 Gaia refers to a mother wanting to keep her child as "Mother Greed." Almost like it is some sort of horrible disease. That first delivery almost had me in tears, I was so angry that they would take a child away from its mother. I would fight with every ounce of my being to keep my child with me. I would be a greedy mother, because there is no way while I am still living and capable of caring for my baby that I would let someone take him/her from me.



4. Gaia feels ugly because of her scar and unable to fit in within the wall (enclave) because she wasn't perfect. Do you think finding out that her parents lied to her [about how she got the scar] was able to move the story along??
  •  I had that part of the story figured out from the beginning, and thought as smart as Gaia is, it was only denial that kept her from realizing what her scar meant too. It didn't come as a surprise to me, that they wanted to keep their daughter and did the only thing they could think of to keep her from being taken away. In a way, it was a revelation that Gaia needed to come to terms with. As a reader I had it figured out long ago, but if Gaia hadn't received that knowledge and faced it, I think we would have found her to be a bit too naive'.

8 comments:

  1. great review and I to wondered about the big words , but there were so many twists and turns through out the story.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Here through the Book Blogger Hop!

    I also had trouble getting through this book, though for me I think it was because while this is a quality dystopian story, there is nothing that really sets it apart from a lot of the other dystopian books out right now. Definitely a quality book with some interesting points, though (I liked the discussion of the need for genetic diversity inside the enclave - don't see that brought up much in isolationist YA stories!).

    ReplyDelete
  3. Julie,

    I knew what the words meant, but because they are so infrequently used (like I said usually only for SAT and GRE vocab lists) every time I came across one I felt like I was reading something from the SAT verbal test--it really threw me out of the story. I did enjoy the book, just found that a little unsettling.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Angela,

    Thanks for hopping by! The genetic diversity topic was different and it raised some good issues. I love dystopian lit, but I felt like I actually had to force myself to read this one. Not one of my favorite dystopian books, but as I got to the end I really began to like it more. It left me really confused about how I feel about the book. I actually probably would have given it 3.5 stars, but since that wasn't an option, I had to settle for 4. Time to create my own rating system I guess.

    ReplyDelete
  5. Fantastic Review!!! I loved your thoughts on the dystopian world in general...and thanks for participating in the bwb!!

    ReplyDelete
  6. Thanks Tina! I look forward to the YA BWB selection every month. So far it has been a lot of fun.

    ReplyDelete
  7. I am seriously the only person that didn't like this book! I'm glad you liked it though, and I totally agree with the bit about the 50-cent words- I felt like sometimes they were there just to prove they could be used instead of adding something to the story. Nice review and thanks for participating in BWB! :D

    ReplyDelete
  8. Thanks Emily! I will admit that it wasn't one of my favorite dystopian novels. I felt sometimes that it tried to hard, and really didn't catch my interest until the ends. The vocab, was annoying too--it felt so out of place when it was used that it actually threw me out of the story every time. I had to ask--"did she just use the word I think she did?" I love the BWB selections and it is fun to see what everyone else has to say.

    ReplyDelete

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