What can I say about Sarah Pinborough’s novel Breeding Ground other than getting through it to the very end was a chore. It was not an enjoyable read, though it was thought provoking.
Critically, this book is all over the place. It is feminist horror in that there’s a clear dichotomy between men and women, yet in the end (as in the beginning) women prove to be the immediate source of horror. Pinborough has penned a feminist novel for misogynists. It’s a completely brilliant idea and one that plods along at a snail’s pace while eschewing definition until the very end.
Throughout the book, Pinborough struggles with her protagonist, Matthew Edge. She struggles to give him a voice, then she struggles to make that voice believable. Lastly, she struggles to make Edge likable again after a very flawed sex scene at the end of chapter sixteen. Quite simply, men are not so self-aware during love-making. She loses Edge by making him a brutally selfish lover who is cognizant of his own brutality. This dichotomy, brutality and cognizance, makes him a sadist and that fact is essentially insurmountable. This Matt Edge is not the same man who dearly loved his wife. He is devolving, not evolving in the face of crisis. The scene doesn’t work; it skirts rape and romance in the most unlikely of places, at the most unlikely of times. It wrecks the character and the narrative.
While I firmly believe that you can start off with an unlikable protagonist and make him likable by story’s end, that’s not what happens here. Matt Edge starts out the loving husband and soon-to-be father. He ends up a bumbling clod with a premature ejaculation problem. He doesn’t deserve to survive and neither does anyone else in the story. Why do these people get to live? Who knows and, worse yet, who cares?
A problem that plagues many feminist novels in genre fiction can be found here: Women are not depicted as strong characters. Rather, male characters either underestimate their female counterparts or are incapable of making a rational decision without a woman present to make all of the painfully obvious connections. Incompetent male characters do not make strong female characters, they merely produce competent female characters contrasted to the Keystone Cops. It’s mildly insulting to men; it’s a grave disservice to women and girls. A heroine should be heroic, not merely sharp enough to know she shouldn’t drink her own bath water.
And here’s the real problem with the story: There is no real heroine in this novel. Rebecca, the final female character to survive, becomes the hope of the world but only inasmuch as she is pregnant by the novel’s end. This isn’t an achievement, it’s an accident for most people! A woman is going to save the world by having a baby: The New Testament trope isn’t terribly new and it’s not terribly feminist, either. How about letting her save the world with her head instead of her uterus?
In this novel the women are not heroic, nor are the men. Women become giant spiders with a hive mind (loss of individuality) while men become smaller spiders that, again, are too stupid to live very long. Every gender gets insulted, so I guess that works in terms of gender equality.
Woman: “You’re too dumb to chew gum and walk at the same time!”
Man: “You’re a soulless monster with no individuality!”
It feels like I’m watching an old married couple fight.
The central human antagonist, Nigel, is executed poorly. If there’s a double entendre in there, it’s intentional. His crime is revealed in an information dump, a convenient use of the supernatural monsters’ telepathic abilities. It’s a poor trick played on the reader. Instead of uncovering Nigel’s secret sin, it is given to the reader courtesy of the monster. Further, the monster demands justice for Nigel’s crime and the human victims of the outbreak capitulate. The characters are no longer working against the Widows, they’re now working for them. Nigel deserves what he gets, but the way he gets it breaks the story.
A general anti-intellectualism plagues the story, too. Blaming science for the problem is one thing, but the near-hatred mustered against the discipline is off-putting. If this is a feminist piece (which is suggested by certain elements, countered by others,) then it’s not doing its part to encourage girls to go into STEM careers.
Katie’s suicide note, “FAT,” opens up another can of worms. If this is an attack on body dysmorphic disorder, it fails. If this is Katie’s way of communicating a hypothesis, that the widows are produced from subcutaneous fat or need that fat to breed, then her communication skills need work. She comes off as selfish, defeatist, vain, needy, and stupid. It’s not what the author intended, but it’s there.
Nobody grows in this novel. The characters devolve, remain shallow depictions of women and men, or they die. Emotional ups-and-downs — tension — is countered by the fact that by page 200 the reader is rooting for the Widows. These people are bland, lifeless, devoid of growth. Maybe that works in the UK (and I doubt that it does) but it doesn’t work here.
The real monster in all of this? The publisher.