Review: Dark Lullaby by Polly Ho-Yen

Updated: Jun 16

A quick Google of the term 'fertility crisis' provides a simple explanation for why, since The Handmaid's Tale, dystopic fiction about women forced or coerced into pregnancy has been so popular. Skimming down the entries, I can see a news article on the topic for almost every year. Although more recently, the concern has been over falling sperm counts. Still, it's an old habit to blame infertility on women. Why would we stop now?

Dark Lullaby by Polly Ho-Yen
Dark Lullaby by Polly Ho-Yen

Dark Lullaby doesn't shy away from what are likely to be quick associations with Margaret Atwood's perhaps best-known novel. The red cover is reminiscent of the handmaids' outfits, while also perhaps referencing recent 'feminist' dystopias such as Naomi Alderman's Baileys prize-winning The Power. Placing the book within such a well-known and popular canon engages early with a wide and loyal readership, but also sets up expectations for this author who is stepping into adult fiction for the first time.

Luckily for us, Polly Ho-Yen has got an excellent story to tell. While the world-building in the opening chapters of the book occasionally felt a little clunky, with some instances of characters reminding each other of information they surely already knew, once the story proper kicks into gear, it's a proper page-turner!

Dark Lullaby follows the stories of Kit and Evie, sisters who face the choice of whether to go through the government-encouraged system of induction to conceive children. The process itself is dangerous, and if a child is conceived, parenting is closely monitored and any minor slip-up could result in 'extraction'; the child being removed from the parents, never to be seen again. Kit and Evie seem to have very different views on the benefits of having children, despite strong financial, social and moral incentives to do so. This is a story about family relationships in a world where children are property, but with the almost obligatory 'twist' at the end.

Reading this book as a woman -- and as a woman who has made a conscious decision, for several reasons, not to have children -- was not always easy. The world Polly Ho-Yen describes is different from today's Britain, but it does highlight the social responsibility that's placed on reproduction and, in particular, on motherhood and the way new mothers are scrutinised. The emphasis on 'good' mothers and 'bad' mothers, and the ways these terms are used by institutions to manipulate public opinion, is an edge Dark Lullaby has that perhaps pushes it closer to home than other similar texts.

Although Polly Ho-Yen's world might feel familiar to Gilead or P.D. James's Britain in Children of Men, it is the relationships at the heart of this novel that make it unique and worthy. The way sisterhood is explored, and the things that can complicate romantic and familial relationships.

My thanks to the publisher and to Netgalley for the advanced review copy of this book.

You can order Dark Lullaby in our July Box as our speculative pick of the month, here!

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