Barbara Kruger, Untitled (Your Body is a Battleground) 1989
If you’re a sucker for a good dystopian novel (and by good, we mean spine-chillingly believable) then you should add Future Home of the Living God to the stack on your bedside table right this second. Set in the not so distant future, pseudo-Christian martial law has been enforced and pregnant women are being rounded up and detained in the wake of disaster: the biological clock has skipped a beat and gene mutation has caused evolution’s indefatigable progress to grind to a halt. The babies that are born - the few - are unrecognisable, primitive and apparently unviable.
The novel is the secret diary of 26-year-old Cedar Hawk Songmaker, an Ojibwe Native American adopted into a affluent and liberal white family. She finds herself pregnant on the brink of society’s collapse. If you think this might all sound a bit Atwoodian, then in many ways you’d be right. Louise Erdrich pays homage to the creator of The Handmaid’s Tale with her examination of the female body as state property. There are clear parallels between what happens in Erdrich’s anarchic Minnesota and the ‘before-years’ of Gilead. Wombs are repossessed. Women are currency. Creation is fetishised.
It’s the explicit detail that makes Erdrich’s novel a masterpiece is its own right. She fills in the blanks that Atwood leaves deliberately empty. It’s not apocalypse in sweeping brush stokes, it’s realistic human experience written into the grain of every page. When there’s a media blackout, Cedar and the reader are none the wiser. When the baby kicks, we too feel the excitement and beauty of the child’s progress as Cedar does. Erdrich - a Turtle Mountain Chippewa herself - moves away from disaster being the concern of the white middle class and brings it to marginalised communities. She addresses Catholicism and wider religion, not as accepted extremist evils as many dystopian narratives do, but as the comforts of normal people who are fighting against new totalitarian regimes.
The book is as much about the day-to-day highs and lows of Cedar’s pregnancy as it is about the terrifying lengths society is prepared to go to preserve the purest form of reproduction. At one point our heroine admits: “awful things are happening around us, true [...] but I am happy at the very pit of myself.” As season two of The Handmaid’s Tale draws to a close, Erdrich has joined the conversation on objectification with a brutal, honest and intensely personal account of childbirth. In an age of misogynistic Twitter trolls and the Trump administration taking control of the female body through regressive family planning mandates, Erdrich’s voice seems more poignant that ever. Her novel is a celebration of the female body, and a warning. Our bodies are not a battleground, they are real, they are sacred, they are the future home of the living god.
Future Home of the Living God by Louise Erdrich. Harper Collins, 2017.