Sealed by Naomi Booth
Published by Dead Ink, 2017
Rating: ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐
Sealed is the kind of speculative fiction that is at once both highly allegorical and frighteningly plausible. This is testament to Booth’s ability to ground her thematic intent within a compelling narrative.
Set in the near future, global warming has resulted in an increasingly toxic atmosphere and the rapid spreading of wildfires. With news circulating about a deadly infection that causes your skin to seal itself into one homogenous mass (fusing shut your eyes, mouth, etc.), heavily pregnant Alice and her partner Pete decide to leave the city for the comparable safety of the countryside. But Alice is haunted by her mother’s recent death and her mounting paranoia; and it soon appears their rural “escape” may not be as safe as they hoped.
Booth uses this brilliant yet disturbing setup as an in to explore the potential horrors of pregnancy and birth; the alien sensations taking place in Alice’s body almost as unnerving to her as the thought of contracting the infection itself. At its core, the novel is a commentary on our fear of losing control and becoming prisoners within our own bodies. There is also a more subtle though well-handled look at the idea of female “hysteria”; the dismissal of women’s concerns when it comes to science, medicine, and even their own bodies.
On a more direct narrative level, there is such a cloying atmosphere throughout, perfectly encapsulating the balmy heat and claustrophobic tension felt by Alice. It can’t be denied that reading a book set on the cusp of a pandemic during covid times added another layer of resonance (and believability) to certain aspects of the story, particularly the government response, attempts to downplay the severity of the situation, and the exploitation and disproportionate suffering of poor communities.
I think Booth gave enough hints as to the possible nature and origin of the infection to make it genuinely frightening, while still embracing a level of ambiguity befitting of the characters’ bewilderment. The climax, though largely predictable, takes on an almost fever dream quality that also really works, with a few key tableaus that I suspect will stick with me. Somewhat less successful is the pacing, which lags at times due to an indulgence of unnecessary tangents.
Though this wasn’t the new favourite I hoped it would be, I found it smart and unsettling in equal measure. It has certainly made me eager to check out more of Booth’s work.