Title: The Auction
Author: Elci North
My GoodReads Rating: ⭐
The way to hell is paved with good intentions, they say. Where does the way paved with bad intentions and totalitarian control lead? Dystopia, for sure.
Jane, a student of software engineering at the University of Pittsburgh, gets drunk and sleeps with her classmate Dave Stowe and gets pregnant. Now in her second trimester, they are married, but Jane does not love him. Angelica dares gay Eric to do it with a woman and gets pregnant. Visually impaired Millie and her husband, Jason, are pregnant after 13 years of marriage and a number of miscarriages. Wendy, a 15-year-old schoolgirl, is pregnant after being raped by a psycho who breaks into her room while she is asleep and rapes her while holding a knife to her throat. She is constantly raped and tortured by her husband.
According to the law, women must marry the biological father of the child they are carrying. But Angelica doesn’t want to marry Eric. She wants to marry Angus, a rich lawyer who she loves.
The law also says that a mother may not study or work until her child turns 18. Also, couples must give up the child they bear to the government and must bid for and buy a child from the government-run auction. These laws, enforced by the Office of Reproductive Oversight, have been passed by President Boyce, who wants to bring back the Second Halcyon Days, similar to the 1950s and early 1960s.
Jane works on a secret project for her husband’s department. Angelica, who routinely uses drugs, pays Jane to buy her clean urine. When Jason meets with an accident, Millie is deemed unfit to live alone. Wendy’s husband is arrested for breaking the rules of his parole, and she has nowhere to go.
All four of them are sent to McKee Place, a jail for pregnant women who have broken the law or have no family member to care for them. But what the government doesn’t know is that the women may be bringing about a revolution.
The book is set in America in the future. The exact year isn’t clear, but it is after 2166. Each chapter in the book consists of first person past tense PoVs of Jane, Angelica, Millie and Wendy, in that order. The portions that are in the PoV of Wendy and those that relate to Jocelyn, another young girl, who is pregnant, in particular, make for disturbing reading.
The main narrative is interspersed with Flash Newsbriefs relating to political policies and the consequences they lead to. These are at first interesting, as the consequences of women withdrawing from the labour force mean labour shortages. But then the effect peters out, when there is more of the same.
The prison doesn’t feel like a prison at all. The women call it a “spa by the river” in a mocking tone, but the way they behave, it does appear as if they are on vacation. The menace exuded by the Office of Reproductive Oversight is not really felt. President Boyce who calls the shots doesn’t have an active role, beyond the Flash News Briefs, giving him an insubstantial air.
For a novel set in dystopia, we never get the impression of the characters being in danger ever. Even the Office of Reproductive Oversight is a silly little thing, getting flummoxed when two women tell them their appeal committee is invalid.
There were a lot of spelling errors in the copy. For instance, one of the characters talks about feeling ‘self-conscience’, rather than ‘self-conscious.’
There is altogether too much dialogue about banal, ordinary things. There is a lot of repetition with characters repeating their stories to different people in different words.
Towards the end, the book becomes increasingly more unconvincing as if the author just wanted to get the book done. The entire plan to take down the auction is propped on such a flimsy base as to be almost laughable. If the author had put some details about how Jane intended to hack the system etc, it would have helped. But all we get is that there are a lot of hackers in Russia, and Jane can’t explain things because her friends won’t understand. The hacking sounds like a ridiculously easy solution.
Also, the shipping of contraband books about the real history of the US happens easily, facing no objection from the authorities. The parts which Jane reads and explains are tedious.
The constant references to Angus’ sexiness and his perfection lose their novelty soon enough, but the characters don’t stop talking about it.
Millie’s heightened, almost superhuman, sense of smell should have been integrated into the plot, rather than being just an attribute of hers, used to tell the others about when meat is rancid. For a while, I hoped she might solve the mystery about whoever died in the room. But that didn’t happen either.
The arc of many of the characters is left incomplete. We learn nothing about the babies that the women give birth to. For all their grief about Wendy, they don’t seem to care as much about her child.
For a story that claims to be about women’s empowerment, the women get rescued by the men for the most part. It is Angus’ money that seems to buy a lot of concessions for them even in the prison.
The only reason Wendy has to die is because there is no loving male in her life. Otherwise, her depression isn’t very convincing.
There is no explanation for why Dave and Angus don’t believe the government’s propaganda, considering that the government has been spreading it for nearly a century. Also, why Angelica’s father and Angus are willing to spend their own money to bring down the government without any political motivation? Angus claims to want to bring down a system that denigrates women and yet he too hopes that his baby is a boy.
At one point, Wendy goes into a high-security floor of the prison where prisoners, deemed to be flight risks, are incarcerated in solitary confinement. Yet she escapes from there, and the author doesn’t tell us how.
The book is set more than 100 years into the future, but there is no mention of newer technology. Granted that communication technologies are deliberately kept low-key by the government, even the surveillance technology is exactly as we know it is in the present time. Even medical technology seems to be at today’s level. Dave returns from Russia, and says, they have made amazing advances with virtual reality. Bah! Virtual reality is already making waves today. Over 150 years later, you have nothing to add about the technology. The author has set the book in the future, but not created any setting in terms of time and socio-economic conditions prevalent.
Many of the readers compared this book to The Handmaid, but for me, this book was far from impactful. That was partly to do with the less-than-forceful plot resolution, and also with the fact that we in India are descending into a dystopia that is far worse than anything found in these pages. Being forced to marry somebody we don’t love is already a reality for many women around the world.
(I read this book on NetGalley. Thank you to the author, the publisher and NetGalley.)