Off Target by Eve Smith, a review by Phoebe Haywood
Hot on the heels of her deliciously uncomfortable dystopian debut novel, The Waiting Rooms (previously reviewed here), which explored the fallout of an antibiotic-resistant pandemic, Eve Smith is back with another well-researched and thought-provoking sci-fi thriller: Off Target. The topic under the microscope this time is genetic engineering, dramatised in a sharp and gripping narrative. A complex subject, but Smith once again expertly handles it with concision and nuance.
Off Target follows the story of Susan, desperate for motherhood but struggling to conceive. An impulsive one-night stand finally makes her dream come true, yet the secret of the child’s biological father threatens Susan’s marriage. In the world she inhabits, genetic engineering has become the norm, so can science provide a way for her to keep the truth quiet?
The novel is in two parts; the first half describes the actions undertaken by Susan, the second half details their sinister consequences. The risk she took will ultimately demand its price.
This book does not hold back on posing ethical challenges to the reader and it asks a fundamental question about genetic engineering: ‘how far should we interfere with our genes?’ Off Target underlines this debate and gives it new, vivid realisation in the story’s dilemma. With the potentially grave impacts of genetic engineering, brought to life by Smith’s careful research, there is a glaring contrast between Susan’s petty motivation of hiding an affair and the possible lasting, significant damage as an outcome to her actions. I couldn’t help but find it disturbing to consider how this meaningful science, in the highly realistic and plausible world that Smith has built, is used with such blasé greed and blind wilful optimism. It hits unsettlingly close to home in reflecting our own society’s approach to science.
And yet, as a counterpoint, Susan’s abiding love for her daughter cannot be called into doubt or denied. Despite the problems brought about by her choices, there is a deep poignancy to their relationship that shows her ultimate fidelity to motherhood; she is committed to her child as a person, not as a piece of DNA. Moreover, Smith is simply magnificent in her skill at portraying the dynamic of a mother-daughter bond. I could breathe the authenticity of the interactions between Susan and her daughter, and it made my heart clench in sympathy for this frantic woman balancing the scientific cost of both maternal joy and maternal pain.
Off Target may make the reader question the morals of the mother, and of medical science more generally, but it does not make them question her love.