There are spoilers in this review – sorry but whoop-de-do. The best part is the ending and I’m going to talk about it.
Heavily-pregnant Alice and her partner Pete are done with the city. Above all, Alice is haunted by the rumours of the skin-sealing epidemic starting to infect the urban population. Surely their new remote mountain house will offer safety, a place to forget the nightmares and start their little family… but the mountains and their people hold a different kind of danger. With their relationship under intolerable pressure, violence erupts and Alice is faced with the unthinkable as she fights to protect her unborn child.
First thing’s first – the cover is cool. It looks like a tasty cover… a cover delectable enough to chew on. Its pretty pastel shades and serene imagery is ironic, because once you open this book and get into the story, you realise that it’s anything but serene. It’s quite horrifying, in fact – not “blood-splattering slasher” horrifying, more like quet, “oh my goat, what’s that I feel on the back of my neck?!” horrifying.
I am a hate-filled goat but there were things I liked about this book. There were also things I hated. Things that made my eyes glow a deeper red than usual.
Firstly, I found the premise very interesting: a rapidly-spreading disease that causes your skin to grow at an alarming rate so that it seals over your bodily orifices, causing all sorts of chaos, and eventually death by suffocation. Such a premise intrigues and pleases me. I love to read about the pain and suffering of humans, and especially their fear. There’s nothing quite like the look on a human’s face when they amble over to me, thinking I’m a sweet little thing, and then they notice my horns, and the way I scuff my hooves, like a bull about to charge. Oh, the delights of seeing them flee, knowing they can never outrun me. But I digress.
Alice is pregnant, and with a premise like that, my first concern was about what would happen to her in childbirth if she were to contract the disease known as cutis. Alice seems overly paranoid about the condition, as well as about germs and contamination in general, as the world seems to be in environmental turmoil. Initially, this story reminded me of SLEEPING BEAUTIES (by Stephen King and Owen King) and ROSEMARY’S BABY (by Ira Levin). You can imagine my excitement at the latter. What ended up bothering me was that there wasn’t much expansion on cutis, which I’m sure was intentional as the disease was only the framework of the story – the story itself being about Alice’s struggle with being pregnant for the first time, unexpectedly, while the world seemed to be falling to pieces around her. Still, the disease was the most interesting element of the story, and though you get glimpses of it here and there, it never really came into its own the way I hoped it would.
I found the characters to be a problem. Alice, though understandable, isn’t all that likeable. This is fine – protagonists don’t need to be likeable so long as they are relatable and you have something to root for (or against). The problem was that no one was likeable, not really. The townspeople she encounters are unwelcoming at best, with some of them outwardly quite hostile, which I initially found intriguing because I thought it might lead somewhere, but it never developed into anything. This was a real shame because Alice’s initial meeting with most people made me think that this small town had some sort of hideous secret that they didn’t want outsiders made privy to.
Pete, her partner, is a condescending, gaslighting asshole who spends most of his time talking down to her, dismissing her anxieties, and making friends with other dickheads who also treat her like dirt. Now, I’m a hateful little fella anyway, but I mean I REALLY hated Pete. My copy of this book is full of notes that say things like ‘I HATE PETE’, and ‘PETE IS SUCH AN ASSHOLE!!!’ Weirdly, this hatred was something that made me turn the pages with glee, so while I didn’t like the characters at all, I did enjoy reading any scene with Pete, because I was automatically incensed by his mere presence, and I was always interested to see what that dickhead would say or do next. This is to Naomi Booth’s credit, actually, because she quite effectively created a mini-boss in Alice’s world without having to paint him as an obvious villain.
Something else that I do have to credit Booth with is the pacing. For the most part, it’s quick and therefore the book is quite the page-turner, and this lends itself well to the rapidly-growing sense of anxiety you feel as you go along, wondering if anything will ever be okay for Alice again. The world is in chaos, and they moved away from the city into a tiny town, thinking it would be safer and healthier, but Alice is sure the disease is already there, the people are horrible, and she can’t get a doctor or a midwife. There’s either something off with her pregnancy, or she’s extremely paranoid and anxiety-riddled. There are insidious things going on in the organisation she used to work for, that come back into play with her new “friends” and neighbours. Everything is just all wrong. I love that feeling when I read a horror novel. Or in real life.
Unfortunately, the book did start to feel repetitive, which was very disappointing because it’s a short novel at less than 200 pages. I didn’t expect to find myself feeling that I was going around in circles. It became tiresome. That was until the last 20 pages or so.
The birth… oh praise the Dark Lord… the birth!
The last scene changed everything for me. Boredom – gone. Annoyance about repetitive relationship points – who cares? Alice finally goes into labour, and it is… a time. Childbirth is absolutely savage. I thought I was reading a fairly standard story about a woman fearing for herself and her unborn child in a world of uncertainty and continuous threats. But then it turned into the most horrifying take on pregnancy and childbirth that I think I’ve read. Alice losing bodily autonomy BECAUSE of her own body was a stroke of genius on Booth’s part. As you may have guessed, cutis comes into play here and things get… visceral.
Usually, I don’t like ambiguous endings, but I’ve made an exception here – not knowing if Alice was delusional or perfectly rational is something that has stayed with me since I finished this book some time ago. I just can’t get that final scene out of my head. It’s so savage and unpleasant – it plagues my thoughts, turning them dark. Despair envelopes me. I love that.
I’d recommend this to fans of body horror, and possibly to those who enjoy apocalyptic fiction – this isn’t QUITE that type of book, but it feels that way.
If you’d like to be mildly traumatised with your own copy of SEALED, you can get one here:
If you want to learn more about Naomi Booth or her other works, you can check her out here:
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