Review: Dark Lullaby by Polly Ho-Yen

When having children is rare and packed with obstacles, it becomes the most important thing in the world. Polly Ho-Yen’s dystopian novel Dark Lullaby (Titan Books, 2021) enters a world of wide-spread infertility. To cope with it, society is monitored by the watchful gaze of the OSIP (The Office Standards in Parenting). If parents show signs of not coping, they risk extraction – the process by which their young children are taken from them and raised in compounds. Despite seeing how demanding and devastating the road to having a child is, and seeing children extracted from their loving families, Kit decides to have a baby. She is pushed to the limits of how far she will go to keep her family together.

Ho-Yen splits her narrative thoughtfully between ‘then’ and ‘now’. In the past, we follow Kit assisting her sister Evie through Induction (the long process of trying to get pregnant with cocktails of drugs and tests). This journey involves Evie preparing for the challenges of getting pregnant and the larger challenges of avoiding extraction. In the present, Kit is on the run, without her daughter Mimi – and more information is revealed through the mesmerising interweaving of both plotlines.

As siblings, Kit and Evie are themselves a rarity in this near-future society. They’re lucky and envied and precious. This makes their relationship even more beautiful. They confide in each other in a society where conversations are constantly monitored. This intensifies the sibling bond they share and at times tests it more than ever.

Parents can receive an ISP – warnings issued in the period of a baby’s first year of life. If enough warnings stack up, the baby is extracted. However, the warnings are issued on ludicrous grounds, such as neglecting to comfort a crying baby for all of three seconds, by ominous enforcers who appear from nowhere. The ensuing scenes of children being torn from their parents are ridden with terror. The toll of the OSIP’S incessant attention appears to be much worse for the mothers in this society in comparison to fathers. Here, Ho-Yen explores sexism (as she does classism), as women are implicitly blamed for the ‘mistakes’ of both parents.

Family is at the core of Dark Lullaby. Kit fights for her relationship with her husband, Thomas – a love which blossoms beautifully in its early stages and its foundations remain strong, though challenged. Kit’s determination to preserve her relationship with Evie drives the human drama, and of course, Kit’s ferocity to protect her family and keep Mimi safe is paramount.

As the narrative strands build to the latter stages of the novel, we realise there are secrets within this society, and sure enough, some cracks begin to show. There is more than meets the eye to the OSIP – and the implications these terrible secrets have for Kit and Evie are monstrous. What results is a heart-throbbing, nail-biting story that is filled with any mother’s worst fears.

By Rory McNeill.

Our thanks go to Titan Books for sending us an advanced copy of this book.