Fiction – paperback; Harper Collins; 356 pages; 2021.
Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale meets Joanna Ramos’ The Farm in this brilliantly compelling novel by Australian-based English-born writer Sara Foster.
The Hush is set in the UK in the near future, about a decade after “the pandemic” (presumably Covid-19) began. Now there’s a new health crisis wreaking havoc, one that’s resulting in an epidemic of seemingly healthy babies dying at birth.
Within a few nightmarish months, almost every hospital across the country had experienced such an event. At first it was one in ten births, then one in eight. Now the ratio is creeping closer to one in five. Caesarians don’t help. It doesn’t matter how rapidly a neonate is plucked from the womb — if it’s an Intrapartum X baby it will go limp the moment it’s touched. The babies demonstrate no sign of pain, and no will to stay in the world. They are pristine human specimens.
They just won’t breathe.
The Government, hellbent on trying to figure out what’s going on, introduce sweeping new powers to monitor women’s well-being, including the compulsory wearing of waterproof watches that track ID, credit card payments and health data. This is under the guise of keeping women safe, but it’s really a way to keep tabs on their reproductive systems. Under the law, the simple purchase of a pregnancy test now requires the presentation of ID, and the test must be taken onsite, the “results recorded and the health authorities notified”.
Into this maelstrom of surveillance and paranoia and the wearing down of women’s reproductive rights, pregnant teenagers begin to vanish without trace. A young activist, dubbed PreacherGirl, draws the population’s attention to their plight but her videos and website are taken down by the Government — and girls continue to disappear.
A thrilling dystopian tale
An exciting mix of dystopia and thriller, The Hush is framed around a tenderly depicted relationship between a mother and daughter who are drawn into an ever-deepening conspiracy reminiscent of Ireland’s Magdalene laundries.
The story, fast-paced and full of urgency, alternates between both characters’ viewpoints. Emma, who is an overworked stressed-out midwife, has witnessed hundreds of stillbirths and knows what is at stake, while Lainey fears for a pregnant school friend who is one of the disappeared.
A third character, Emma’s own estranged mother, comes into the story a little later on to help fight the good fight. She’s a renowned feminist who lives in Australia (sounds like someone familiar) and just so happens to be in the UK on a book tour at just the right moment!
There’s a wider cast of supporting female characters that showcase how women can achieve — and overcome — anything if they band together. (Not as cheesy as it sounds!)
But what gives the book its real edge and power is the believability of the setting. Foster depicts a world teetering on the brink of chaos and fear, where climate threats, anxiety, populism, terrorism and media hysteria combine to create something that feels as if it is lifted from today’s news headlines.
The Hush has been optioned for development as a television series.
I read this book for Bill’s Australian Women Writers Gen 5 Week, which was held on 15-22 January, but typically, having recently started a new job, I am waaaaaay behind in my reviewing obligations. Better late than never, I guess!
And because the author resides in Perth (she moved here in 2004 and has recently completed her PhD at Curtin University), the book also qualifies for my #FocusOnWesternAustralianWriters. You can find out more about this reading project here and see what books I’ve reviewed from this part of the world on my Focus on Western Australian Writers page.