WE ALL HAVE TO FACE OUR FEARS EVENTUALLY:
a Review of Naomi Booth’s Sealed
Reviewed by Eve Volungeviciute
‘That was the old magic. But we live in new times. I can’t depend on the old magic
of skin, on the old secrets of healing. Our skin in a hex on us now: it turns
our bodies to puffs of smoke, chewing out their own fires.’ (p.17)
Naomi Booth’s novel Sealed is a lot of things, but forgettable is not one of them. Branded as ecological horror fiction, the book is that and also much more, as apart from discussing the themes of climate change and pollution, it also talks about paranoia, grief, and, obviously, motherhood.
Since the opening pages, Sealed locks its readers in a cage of imminent dread as the storyline slowly but steadily progress towards something horrible, which keeps the audience on their toes. The story starts with a heavily pregnant Alice and her partner Pete moving to the suburbs, on the pretence of spending Alice’s maternity leave in a more rural setting. It doesn’t take long for the real reason to be revealed – a skin disease called Cutis, which manifests in a nauseating way by having a new layer of epidermis sealing over a person’s mouth, eyes, nose, eventually causing a painful death. The dystopian premise is easy to digest, but the story has a lot more layers to it.
The paranoia seeping out of Alice is hard to ignore, and at times, the readers might be inclined to question how much of it is warranted. Her obsession with Cutis cases both back in the big city and in their new home, as well as her mother’s recent death, which she believes was caused by it, can get quite grating, especially when no one around her seems to take the woman seriously. In a way, the narrative gives off a diluted Rosemary’s Baby vibe because Pete refuses to acknowledge the seriousness of her fears, writing it off as raging pregnancy hormones. It creates a vicious cycle, as one would think that if Alice’s concerns are properly addressed at least once, maybe she would stop being so agitated. After all, if you treat someone like they’re crazy, eventually they’ll start believing it.
Alice is alone not only in her fears of Cutis, but also her struggles with pregnancy, which, while somewhat tied to the disease, are also valid on their own, and are something anyone pregnant or with kids would relate to. It’s also heavily hinted Alice doesn’t genuinely love Pete and they’re only sticking together because of the unborn child, which is not exactly the most solid foundation to build a family on, but also is something that can hit close to home for people. Without spoiling too much of the story, in the climax, Alice is forced to face her fears regarding both the disease and her pregnancy in a most grotesque, yet fitting way to the story.
Ironically, Cutis itself can be considered one of the book’s shortcomings, as from a scientific perspective it leaves one too many questions to be that believable. How did the government let it get so bad? How did people die from it so quickly? Regardless, Cutis serves its purpose on a more social perspective, as it’s speculated the disease originated because of worldwide pollution, which in turn caused a chain reaction of climate change – heatwaves, forest fires, the likes.
At one point, Alice even theorises that perhaps Cutis is the body’s way of protecting itself against said pollution. It makes sense when one looks into the way allergies and autoimmune diseases work – the human body sees these as completely normal and can end up killing itself over a bad allergic reaction. While pollution is naturally no good for us, we could argue that our epidermis concealing us within itself would be a bit of a drastic way to deal with it. Regardless, it gets the point across, which is that we must get concerned about climate change before it’s too late to do anything about it (whether it’s already past that point is another question).
Pacing-wise, the book can be quite uneven, as the first half of the story is at times a bit too expositional, which can make a more impatient reader skim through some paragraphs before being hit by a sudden speed-up in action in the last quarter. The events themselves manage to make up for this, however, not dragging the value of the story down too much.
Overall, Sealed is definitely on the same level as other apocalyptic scenario pieces of fiction. For the fans of the genre, it will definitely leave a lasting impression and even if for some the story won’t hit the right notes, they will still appreciate a message it’s trying to send – that in order to save our planet, we need to work together and take it seriously, preferably before our own bodies turn against us in a desperate attempt to save themselves.
Sealed is available in various bookshops, including online from Hive.