Fiction Reviews

Before Mars

(2018) Emma Newman, Gollancz, £13.99, trdpbk, 340pp, ISBN 978-1-473-22389-9


This is the third book in a series, and like the others, can be read as a standalone. It overlaps a little with the timeline of After Atlas, but itís not necessary to have read one before the other in order to follow the story. It is set in the same universe as the other two books but in a different place and with a different cast. Again there is a switch in style: this is not the psychological mystery of Planetfall or the whodunit of After Atlas, but instead follows the story of a woman trying to escape from a domestic life she feels completely trapped by. Anna Kubrin is a geologist and artist who accepts a job working at a small operation on Mars. Travelling to Mars means leaving behind her husband and young daughter, not forever, but for long enough for the break to be life changing for all of them. Anna takes the job as a way out of a life she hates and does not try to pretend otherwise, although she is wracked with guilt over her failure to embrace motherhood in the way that she feels women are supposed to. Newman plays with this idea throughout the book, drip-feeding in pieces of information about Annaís road to motherhood in a way that forces the reader to reconsider preconceived ideas about parenting and what it means to be a mother instead of a father.

Playing out alongside this is another conspiracy, as this is again a book riddled with secrets. Anna finds evidence that there are things happening on Mars that should not be. She finds various items which only she could have hidden but has no memory of having done so. There is a suggestion that perhaps Anna is going mad and she contemplates this alongside her failings as a mother, seeing them as two sides of the same coin. The set up on Mars mirrors the claustrophobia Anna felt in her marriage, the sense of being trapped both physically, inside a small, confined space, and within the small, confined relationship Ė at home, she had her husband and daughter, and on Mars, there are only three other workers plus the AI. The only way to make it work is to press uncomfortable emotions down into nothing, something that Anna tries and fails to do. Away from her family, she starts to rediscover who she is and what she wants from her life.

In the end, Anna is unable to squash her inner self enough, and starts to unravel what is really happening on Mars just as she begins to truly unpick her feelings for her husband and daughter, and in so doing begins to forgive herself.

With the sharp focus on some of the more uncomfortable truths of motherhood, I am not sure how well the book will work for readers who havenít had that particular experience though there is still plenty here to hold interest. I found Before Mars to be a tightly written, fast paced novel and as with the other books in the series, very much about the journey rather than the destination. It will engage those with an interest in the social consequences of changing technology rather than the specific details of the technology itself.

Jane OíReilly

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