Naomi Booth’s debut novel Sealed opens with a heavily pregnant Alice and her partner Pete moving from Sydney to a small town on the outskirts of Lakoomba, a fictional community based on the hillside villages near the Australian Blue Mountains.
It might sound like a typical story of fresh starts and familial relationships, but Alice is fleeing the possible outbreak of a deadly skin disease in the city, one in which the sufferers’ skin begins growing to cover all orifices, effectively trapping — or sealing — them within their own flesh.
City life has made her wary of most things — the safety of her drinking water, “unprotected” foods, the system itself, and whether it is legitimizing the disease outbreak — and she hopes the move will offer refuge. Pete believes this move to the countryside will soothe her paranoia and, hopefully, make her concentrate on the new life she is carrying. However, Alice is not concerned with exhibiting expected maternal behaviors. Instead she continues to be dangerously preoccupied with the skin illness, the people affected, and what her new environment can teach her about it.
The near-future setting selected by Booth is perfect. The Australian countryside is beautiful and fascinating, but dark secrets lie within. Dust, dirt, and unforgiving heat create a film of haziness and induce a dreamlike state. Alice feels exhausted and disoriented, unable to navigate her new environment, and the reader feels exhausted with her. The novel is deeply sensual, filled with often-terrifying scents and sounds that place the reader on edge. These include the chirps of (infected) birds and the whispers of (dying) trees, hospitals that smell more like slaughterhouses, and a BBQ that stinks of “burning toxins.”
The theme of being sealed in and trapped is carried beautifully throughout the novel. Although Alice escapes from her city life and from the pollution she believes may be triggering the disease, she cannot run from horror of her own skin or what is waiting for her in the wilderness. And as wildfires begin spreading across the surrounding landscape, they force the locals — and now Alice and Pete — out of their homes and into seemingly inescapable camps.
Booth also chooses a really interesting pace for the novel. It starts slow, perhaps too slow for some readers. We then jump back and forward in time via a series of flashbacks into Alice’s past, gaining a sense why Alice is the way she is, why she continues to stay with the unlikeable Pete, and how she has become hooked to scouring the Internet for suspected victims to feed her new “disease-blog” obsession. The story builds and builds, and the final 70 pages or so are, quite simply, petrifying. They are also incredibly gripping. So much is thrown at the reader in this last section that one is placed in a state of constant anxiety. We feel so deeply for Alice as she leaves behind her former self and attempts to overcome her fears and anxieties, that the abrupt ending comes as shock.
Although this type of sudden ending can leave the novelist open to criticism, in this case the way the door was hastily shut on the reader works. It is not for us to know what happens next, for we have seen so much already.
It is easy to see the parallels between the arc of the novel and the arc of climate change. In the beginning only a select few appreciate the full extent of the disaster that is to come. As more and more people begin to recognize the danger that’s upon them, panic ensues, just as many of us are now in a panicked state about our altered planet. Perhaps the apocalyptic frenzy we see at the end of the novel is Booth’s way of suggesting what is in store for humankind.
We also cannot ignore the links the novel makes between motherhood and Mother Nature. Alice and Pete attempt to create a new life in a world where that is not always well-received, and where this new life faces many hazards. Booth’s narrative leaves us uncertain as to whether Alice’s pregnancy is a good or bad thing given the circumstances. In fact, it is not until the final pages that Alice seems to truly realize she is carrying a baby, and the full implications of what that means.
Sealed is a fantastic, unique novel that combines interesting themes with a captivating pace and riveting writing. Everything is meticulously considered for this fictional nightmarish environment that feels just close enough to reality to make readers squirm in their seats.
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