Characters attempt rebellion from a dystopian society that replenishes its female population with forced polygamy and childbearing.
Deep underneath Green City, a group of women live in secret in the Panah, a structure that allows them to evade their fate as wives and mothers strictly controlled by the government. After a virus wiped out a large number of women and wars decimated the region—which roughly encompasses what is current-day Pakistan and Iran—they rebuilt by requiring women to marry multiple men, undergo fertility treatments, and be educated as “domestic scientists.” But the women of the Panah have resisted and make their livings as consorts to the male leaders of Green City. Rather than sex, these women offer nocturnal companionship, usually simply by sleeping next to their clients and holding them. Lin, the leader of the Panah, believes they are safe from discovery after years of her careful planning and personal risks. But when Sabine, one of the Panah girls, turns up in a hospital, nearly dead from an ectopic pregnancy she has no memory of conceiving, all the secrets of both the Green City elite and the rebels are imperiled. Pakistan native Shah (A Season for Martyrs, 2014, etc.) has written a novel that is in explicit conversation with The Handmaid’s Tale, and though Shah’s society is emphatically secular, situating her narrative in a predominantly Muslim area of the world is an overdue enlargement of the cultural conversation that Atwood’s novel continues to provoke. But Shah’s novel, which blends the spy genre and soap opera with speculative fiction, isn’t really the feminist dystopia one might expect. None of the female characters are allowed emotional independence: Each one’s love for a man drives her decision-making.
One can’t help wishing the novel had roamed a bit more wildly within this inventive premise.