Nekropolis, by Maureen F. McHugh

Nekropolis is a quick read, but there is depth to the tale, which examines several different types of relationship by shifting the point of view in each new section: the first chapter is told by the focal character, Hariba; the second chapter is revealed by her love-interest, Akhmim (who provides an interesting glimpse into a different psyche); the third chapter is related by Hariba’s mother; the penultimate chapter is from the point of view of Hariba’s best friend, Ayesha; and the final chapter returns to the story from Hariba’s point of view. The reader gains insight into the relationships, loyalties, and sacrifices made, from several viewpoints.Nekropolis_McHugh_cover

Hariba’s family lives in the Nekropolis, a poor-area of Morocco in which mausoleums have been converted into tenement-apartments. At the age of twenty-one, Hariba becomes ‘jessed’; an injection biologically imprints loyalty for her owner, Mbarek, a wealthy man (jessing appears to be a kind of nano-biotechnology). Hariba is Mbarek’s housekeeper; she is fortunate, Mbarek is a decent man. He also owns a harni, an artificially manufactured man called Akhmim. Harni are considered sub-human and, at first, Hariba treats Akhmim with derision, but she eventually becomes infatuated with him, and Akhmim becomes ‘impressed’ on Hariba: Akhmim was designed as a male concubine and he wants to please Hariba. An intriguing non-sexual relationship evolves.

Mbarek’s wife becomes disenchanted with Hariba, who is sold to a different household; she misses Akhmim, and they run away together. Hariba becomes sick with jessing-withdrawal and she uses family and friends to help her and Akhmim hide and escape from the authorities.

The story triggers several questions: How can the boundary between obligation and imposition be defined? What are the many faces of love and how strong are its attachments? What are the possible consequences of sudden freedom? Is the idea of freedom a universal concept? What is it in the make-up of humanity that allows hierarchical inequities to develop? Can the search for happiness blind one to the enjoyment possible in the present moment?

I enjoyed Nekropolis, but I would have appreciated a longer work with more depth: the novel felt like a work of short fiction; a handful of short pieces stitched together into a novella.