Sealed by Naomi Booth
Paperback: 150 pages
Publisher: Dead Ink
Review by Teika Marija Smits
For some reason, Dead Ink, Sealed’s publisher, billed Naomi Booth’s debut novel an ‘eco horror’ on social media. Put firmly in the literary fiction camp it most likely evaded the eyes of readers who would’ve been keen to savour this speculative – and dystopian – book, which is a shame really, as it deserves a wide audience. Yes, it is literary fiction, but it is also imaginatively speculative – the main premise being that a new global disease is spreading through an already environmentally stressed Earth, attacking humans and other animal species. The disease is an overgrowth of skin whereby orifices – mouths, ears, eyes, anuses etc. – are being sealed over, causing a horrific death to those unfortunate enough to not receive instant medical attention.
It is into this overheated and toxic world that Booth plunges her protagonist, heavily pregnant Alice, along with her partner Pete, allowing the reader to experience firsthand Alice’s worst fears come true.
Always a worrier, Alice’s work on the emergency applications within the Department of Housing ensures that her fear of the skin sealing disease – ‘cutis’ – only increases. She begins to obsessively monitor (and blog about) the spread of the disease, since the majority of the public are unconcerned about the potential epidemic; the media only give sporadic attention to cutis and the more gruesome deaths caused by the disease.
Pete, in contrast, worries about nothing, and is enthusiastic about them leaving the city to spend Alice’s maternity leave in the country, surrounded by fresh air and tropical plants. But Alice brings her fears with her and she sees, or thinks she sees, cutis everywhere.
The first half of the book, focused as it is on the characters, (the asymmetry of Alice and Pete’s relationship, the exploration of Alice’s grief over the death of her mother) certainly bears all the hallmarks of a literary novel. For some readers the pace of the earlier part of the novel may be too slow and the use of present tense an irritation. However, Booth does a great job of portraying Alice’s paranoia, as well as her grief, whilst building tension. The last quarter of the book speeds up almost exponentially, and it is to Booth’s credit that she makes the finale so compelling without comprising the quality of her writing.
Dystopian fiction may not be for everyone – particularly when current global politics seem frighteningly dystopian – and Booth’s overheated and polluted Earth, where everything seems about to go up in flames both literally and metaphorically, is spookily prescient. Sometimes, and particularly as we find ourselves in the middle of a global heatwave, it appears to be more realist than speculative fiction. However, like the best dystopian fiction, Booth allows the reader a glimmer of hope.
Sealed is a hard-to-categorise novel, and it does not make for easy reading. But free of any and all labels, it is still this: a powerful book with a premise that is both original and hard-hitting.