Here’s a haunting dystopian novel that will send chills down your spine
oo frequently in times of war, women’s bodies have been the battleground: for revenge, pleasure, anger and everything in between. When, and if, they are spared all that, they become collateral damage, even a casual sacrifice. Before She Sleeps by Bina Shah brings to life our worst nightmares in a way so brilliant that not for a second can the reader question the plot’s plausibility.
The action takes place in a fictional place called Green City that is monitored using the latest artificial intelligence tools informed by terribly misogynistic values. Green City is facing a gender emergency after a nuclear war and a virus outbreak. The authorities are determined to fix and manage the men-to-women ratio. In order to do so, it has been decided that every woman in the city is to have four husbands so that the men’s needs are met. The women are pumped with hormones to keep fertility levels high. Relationships between men and women out of wedlock are illegal. Women cannot opt out of this system. To live in Green City, they must accept four husbands and procreate or rot in jail, or worse, accept death as their fate. Shah reveals in subtle ways that a non-complying woman – in Green City and elsewhere - is as good as a dead woman.
A group of Green City women revolt and rebel in the strangest of ways. Lin runs an organisation called the Panah that shelters women who don’t want their bodies to be used like those of caged animals. These women live underground, dead to the government while offering men the illusion what the war has made impossible a woman not share with others. There is no physical intimacy. Instead, the Panah women provide men with the comfort of companionship at their homes, which is rare, unattainable and illegal.
Shah makes us question our notions of freedom, revolt and rebellion like never before. The women of the Panah, free of the shackles of constant reproduction, are confined physically. When they die, they cannot receive a proper burial and are buried inside the Panah. However, these women are free. They are not ordered around by men and don’t have to keep four husbands. They don’t have to give birth to unwanted children. But is the inability to move around a city, receive healthcare at a hospital, and generally having your head above the water still freedom? Even in their rebellion, they are still dependent on men.
Shah carefully threads the plot with strong female characters and gives those characters strong voices. Each woman in the novel brings forth a chilling story of her past which makes one question the many ways the world has failed its women, time and time again, across cultures and borders. What makes this one of the most haunting dystopian works is that while Shah brings to life a city completely out of her imagination, fictional in the most fictional of ways, it also subtly reflects reality in more ways than one would like to believe. She creates fascinating and terrifying imagery of the myriad of ways women suffer at the hands of men, while men retain their freedom. Even the virus outbreak in Green City affects only women as men can only be carriers. This means that women lose their lives because of a disease brought to them by men while they remain safe.
Before She Sleeps provides a fascinating new angle to the notions of power, sex, intimacy, love and revolt in a manner so evocative that it will send chills down your spine. Once the book ends, readers will be haunted by the image of Green City and its rules and regulations – praying that the world never comes to this.
Before She Sleeps
Author: Bina Shah
Publisher: Liberty Publishing, 2022
Pages: Paperback, 256
Price: Rs 1,195
The reviewer is a Lahore-based writer and journalist. She has studied at Mount Holyoke College and Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism