Published by HarperCollins, November 2021 | Fiction, Australian, Women
In Sara Foster’s seventh novel, the world is emerging from years of pandemic lockdowns; the threat of food scarcity, economic turmoil and climate insecurity hangs in the air; and citizens are still subject to the daily impost of health screening rituals and the slow creep of intrusive technology.
Against this backdrop, a new fear is beginning to rattle the globe: babies in England are inexplicably dying at birth, as the narrator explains:
It doesn’t matter how rapidly a neonate is plucked from the womb – if it’s an Intrapartum X baby it will go limp at the moment it’s touched. The babies demonstrate no signs of pain, and no will to stay in the world. They are pristine human specimens. They just won’t breathe.
In a bid to unearth what’s happening to the ‘doll babies’, as the tiny victims become known, authorities go into overdrive, passing new laws to further restrict freedoms, particularly those of women.
The mystery deepens as pregnant teenagers start to disappear – among them, the friend of the novel’s 17-year-old protagonist, Lainey.
The panic hadn’t hit until a couple of weeks ago when [YouTuber] PreacherGirl dropped her song about fourteen pregnant girls who’d purportedly vanished … To begin with, the whole town was talking about it, but once PreacherGirl’s site was taken down, many people felt it was too dangerous to continue whispering conspiracy theories in case their watches were recording all conversations.
Amid the growing horror, Lainey and her mum Emma – a respected midwife at the local hospital – are unexpectedly drawn into a covert fight against a conspiracy that goes to the heart of the British government.
Refreshingly, this mother-daughter duo expands to become a tri-generational team when Emma’s mum Geraldine is also drawn to the fray, bringing her rebellious feminist spirit to the fight.
In the fast-paced story that unfolds, with its various nods to other dystopian skin-crawlers including Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and PD James’s The Children of Men, and the teen heroism of Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games, Foster weaves a range of spiky themes capturing the zeitgeist – erosion of data privacy, authoritarian curbing of individual freedoms, the wearing down of women’s reproductive rights, and capitalism at the expense of community.
Threaded throughout is the poignant portrayal of the relationship between Lainey, on the cusp of adulthood, and her mother, as the story alternates between the two women’s viewpoints. We see their strength as individuals and their amplified power as each draws support from the other. Along the way, the mother, daughter and grandmother navigate the complex emotions tied in with maternal bonds – the misunderstandings, adoration, guilt, familiarity, need, worry and pride.
The symbolism of the Matryoshka dolls – depicted on the novel’s cover and a motif throughout – is an endearing touch. Matryoshka dolls are often associated with fertility, representing an ancestral chain of mothers carrying on the family through the child in their womb. They’re also said to illustrate the unity of body, soul, mind, heart and spirit.
It is clear Foster revels in celebrating women’s experience – a theme also evident in the British-born Australian novelist’s six previous psychological thrillers.
Beyond the main protagonists of The Hush, there is a rich tapestry of other women. Female friends form a dynamic circle around Lainey and Emma, all of whom step up in support to face the high-stakes conspiracy head-on. Women also dominate positions of leadership – the British prime minister is a woman, as is the chief scientists and the school principal.
While there are a few good men too, the villainous masterminds are notably male.
Foster has said that one of her aims for the novel was to bring mothers into a genre that often features motherless teen protagonists (think Katniss Everdeen, Tris Prior). And it takes Foster a good step closer towards her mission to bring powerful mother-daughter relationships into the dystopian genre.
For all of its unsettling dystopian themes, at its core The Hush is a hopeful tale of ordinary women overcoming extraordinary odds to fight for their rights.
If you like Hunger Games and Twilight, I reckon you'll like this one too - it's action packed and has the teen-themes down pat. It's quite complex in its plot, but feels like the ground has already been somewhat broken by dystopian masters that came before Sara Foster. It's an entertainer.
Sara Foster The Hush HarperCollins 2021 368pp $32.99