“I can feel hysteria in my fingertips when the room is quiet. It’s like a dark power I have where we women can unleash disorder and harm,” (Tater 13).
Mallory Tater’s debut novel The Birth Yard is a dark look at patriarchal control and rebellion and promises to be a must-read for lovers of The Handmaid’s Tale. But Tater’s work doesn’t take place in a dystopian society; instead Tater’s story takes place in a Canadian commune cut off from the ordinary world.
The novel follows Sable Ursu on her eighteenth Arrival Day and that means she is ready to be a mother. A fourth generation member of a patriarchal cult known as the Den, Sable has waited her whole life for this moment, to do her womanly duty of being Matched with a man of good standing in her community and becoming a mother, it’s what all the girls of the Den want. Once becoming Matched with Ambrose, who comes from a favoured family in the Den, Sable becomes pregnant and then she and the other girls who have also been impregnated are sent to the Birth Yard where they will learn to be good wives and mothers, only returning to their community once their babies have been born. But Sable grows suspicious of the secrets of the Birth Yard and worried about the pills she and the other girls are forced to take and the cruel punishments that follow when the rules are broken. But the Den is the only life Sable has ever known, is there another life out there for her?
Tater’s novel isn’t exciting; it follows the cult in a way that is both terrifying and ordinary. After all, our narrator Sable is just living her daily life, and while the way of the cult may be unsettling to reader’s its normal to Sable who has known nothing else. All Sable and the other women in the Den are meant to do is serve men and bear children. As soon as girls begin menstruating they are put on birth control until being taken off of it once they’re eighteen so they can’t get pregnant when they aren’t supposed to. If a girl is raped and becomes pregnant, or if a girl becomes pregnant out of season the baby is aborted. There is no love, no connection, and no respect for women or their bodies, the only thing that brings connection are children and only when children come at the time the cult allows them too. Sable recalls that her “Gram Evelyn used to tell me about a time when there were bonds between a woman and Man before pregnancy. Now babies are what make a union. We aren’t solidified until the day our child is born,” (Tater 99).
And then we are introduced to the Birth Yards which brings a whole new kind of horror, where the pregnant girls are forced to work hard and take a variety of pills to keep them subdued and happy in their labour. When drugged the girls don’t question the hard chores they are forced to complete or the strange pills and tea they are forced to consume, they become the women the cult wants. The Birth Yards “are meant to coach girls, demand that we work harder, learn to contribute. As if we innately don’t know how, as if we’re genetically designed to be slothful and incapable” (Tater 170).
Tater does an excellent job of taking reader’s into Sable’s ingrained perspective of cult life and that’s why it felt unrealistic when Sable starts to rebel against her lifestyle. Sable is a matrilineal descendant to the original cult leader and therefore comes from a favoured family, though not as favoured if she was linked paternally and was a boy herself. And while Tater gives reason enough for Sable questioning the Den life through her grandmother’s stories of Main Stream, the real world, it felt out of character at the same time. But I understand that we wouldn’t have a story without Sable rebelling against her way of life, it’s just annoying when it doesn’t exactly fit with the lifestyle of our protagonist.
The Birth Yard is a strong debut that, while difficult to read with the subject matter and not the most exciting read it sticks with readers. Tater’s story is about reawakening, of realization and fighting for ones rights. Tater does an excellent job of conveying this to reader’s and the choice to set it in our world versus a dystopia brings home the point that violence and control over women’s bodies isn’t just happening in a fictional future world it is still happening in our world, and we need to be aware of it so that we can fight against it.
Publication: March 3rd 2020
Pages: 320 pages (Paperback)
Genre: Fiction, YA, Cult
My Rating: ⛤⛤⛤⛤
“Sable Ursu has just turned eighteen, which means she is ready to breed. Within the confines of her world, a patriarchal cult known as the Den, female fertility and sexuality are wholly controlled by Men. In the season they come of age, Sable and her friends Mamie and Dinah are each paired with a Match with the purpose of conceiving a child. Sable is paired with Ambrose, the son of a favoured Man in the Den. Others are not so lucky.
In their second trimester, girls are sent to the Birth Yard, where they are prepared for giving birth and motherhood, but are also regularly drugged and monitored by their midwives. Sable is unable to ignore her unease about the pills they are forced to swallow and the punishments they receive for stepping out of line. Too many of the girls, including Mamie and Dinah, have secrets and it is impossible to know whom to trust. When Sable’s loyalty is questioned and her safety within the Den is threatened, she must rebel against the only life she has ever known—the only life she has been designed for.”