We came out here to begin again. We came out here for the clear air and a fresh start. No one said to us: beware of fresh starts. No one said to us: god knows what will begin.
Timely and suspenseful, Sealed is a gripping modern fable on motherhood. A terrifying portrait of ordinary people under threat from their own bodies and from the world around them. With elements of speculative fiction and the macabre, this is also an unforgettable story about a mother’s fight to survive.
Heavily pregnant Alice and her partner Pete are done with the city. Above all, Alice is haunted by the rumours of the skin sealing epidemic starting to infect the urban population. Surely their new remote mountain house will offer safety, a place to forget the nightmares and start their little family. But the mountains and their people hold a different kind of danger. With their relationship under intolerable pressure, violence erupts, and Alice is faced with the unthinkable as she fights to protect her unborn child.
Alice – 36 weeks pregnant – and her partner, Pete, have decided to leave the city. It’s a fresh start for the couple, and they don’t question their luck too closely at finding a seemingly idyllic property at a bargain price. Their move to Lakoomba is met with disbelief. Here, they find a town – or what’s left of it – barely hanging on. Services such as healthcare are virtually non-existent as the residents, deemed at risk of bush fires, heat events, and area dehydration are being encouraged to move to “displacement camps” which aren’t nearly as transitionary as the word camp suggests. Alice and Pete’s move is seen as an extra drain on resources that are already barely coping, and they’re resented for their selfishness. Their arrival and the antagonism they face sets the tone for the novel as Alice in particular never settles in their new location and is constantly on edge.
Part of their motivation for leaving the city is the death of Alice’s mother who officially died of a stroke, although Alice knows that a new disease, cutis, was the cause. Where this disease came from and how it’s spread aren’t known, but there have been sufficient cases that the public are aware of it. Cutis causes new skin growth – much like scar tissue forming over a wound – covering a person’s mouth, nostrils, ears, and other orifices. Surgery is possibly to reverse the effects of cutis, but it has been known to cause death when it goes untreated or prevents a person from breathing, for example.
For most people, cutis is simply another thing on a big long list of things to worry about, but Alice is obsessed with it. She researches it, blogs about it, and sees cases of what could be cutis everywhere she goes. She suspects the government of covering up the seriousness of cutis, with few deaths officially caused by it, and cases like her mother’s reported by an effect caused by cutis rather than the disease itself. I thought that this was brilliantly done. Told from any other perspective, Alice would come across as a conspiracy theorist. It doesn’t come across that way from her point of view though – her concerns seem plausible and relevant. That said, it’s difficult to know how serious it really is – Alice believes it’s everywhere, and yet there’s an element of paranoia about her that makes the reader wonder if she’s looking too hard for it. It’s an interesting and thought-provoking twist on the scenario.
Alice’s relationship with Pete is a strange one. Friends since childhood, they’ve tried and failed to make a go of things before, but Alice’s pregnancy means that they’re determined to make things work this time. Throughout, I felt that Pete – who comes across as a bit of a dick – was more into the relationship than Alice. I think that this is understandable, given Pete’s patronising attitude and the way in which he constantly downplays Alice’s concerns. They are moments of intimacy between them, and I could see the potential for something more for them, but they were few and far between, and I found him to be largely repellent. Again, we see events from Alice’s perspective, and so only see one side of things. It’s possible that Pete’s attitude is being misinterpreted by the admittedly fractious Alice.
Sealed is a fantastically creepy novel that is part horror and part dystopia, and Booth does a brilliant job of evoking a level of unease in the reader – I felt on edge throughout, never entirely sure where the real threat lay but knowing that something was coming. It’s a novel that highlights ecological and climatological concerns and seems particularly pertinent given the extensive bushfires in Australia earlier this year, and also highlights the impact upon rural and indigenous populations. Recommended, although it’s probably not a book to read while pregnant…
Sealed is published by Dead Ink, and is available paperback, digital, and audio formats.