The Reading Women Challenge encourages you to explore women’s writing, reading each previous winner of the Women’s Prize for Fiction. Find out more here.
This month I read books loosely gathered by the theme of women. Yes, technically, many of the books in this challenge can be defined by this theme, but these three particularly!
The Power – Naomi Alderman (2017 winner)
Synopsis: All over the world women are discovering they have the power. With a flick of the fingers they can inflict terrible pain – even death. Suddenly, every man on the planet finds they’ve lost control. The Day of the Girls has arrived – but where will it end?
The Power is a book within a book – an account of ‘the cataclysm’ – an event when the world changed. The story begins with a correspondence between its male writer and a female colleague, immediately setting up that the world this exists in is matriarchal, where women have the power.
One of the things I most enjoyed was how apt ‘The Power’ really is as a title. It begins kind of as a role reversal – women are going to take back a world that has always denied them. It’s a claiming, or reclaiming, and there is something thrilling about seeing that erupt in a world that is ours, solidly patriarchal. But how does a change like that actually come about? Well, therein lie all of the horrors about power. As the timeline of the book unfolds, formatted as a countdown to this event, the central theme becomes more apparent. The story has a lot to say about power and what kind of person you are if you wield it. And, perhaps, how many stories about benevolent power are an entirely fictional construction.
Throughout the book, Alderman takes great care to write the story as though it is retelling a historical event. There is a lot of detail put into its history, (the world building, essentially), such as descriptions of archaeological artefacts and separating the narrative between all the major players. Although I enjoyed this level of detail, I also found that it made it difficult to really relate with the characters. Occasionally I was enjoying the skill of writing more than the actual plot, which may be par for the course in literary fiction, but doesn’t always make a fun novel. However, it is all very thought-provoking, and definitely impactful, mostly because I hadn’t thought about many of the ideas presented here before.
We Need to Talk About Kevin – Lionel Shriver (2005 winner)
Synopsis: Eva never really wanted to be a mother; certainly not the mother of a boy named Kevin who murdered seven of his fellow high school students, a cafeteria worker and a teacher who had tried to befriend him. Now, two years after her son’s horrific rampage, Eva comes to terms with her role as Kevin’s mother in a series of startlingly direct correspondences with her absent husband Franklyn about their son’s upbringing.
Publisher: Profile Books
This is a curious book, because from the outset you are told the biggest horror of the story: that a boy conducted a school shooting. It’s formatted as an epistolary novel, with each chapter a letter from Eva to her absent husband. The letters span across two years, but within them they recount Eva’s life from before she became a mother and through it, meaning it does feel like a standard novel, aside from all the second-person pronouns.
I didn’t actually notice the length of this book, which is unusual for literary fiction. A huge reason for that is because the voice of Eva is very complete and vivid, largely because of the evocative way Shriver constructs sentences. Take this for example: “The shriek and pump of all that rage was unsustainable, so as he grew older the note would descend to the uninflected blare of a leaned-on car horn; the paint in his foreground would gradually thicken, its hue coagulating to the sluggish black-purple of liver, and his prevailing emotion would subside from fitful wrath to steady, unabating resentment.”
I mean aside from completely laying bare Eva’s opinions of her son, Kevin, this creates a character who is almost pretentious with how analytical she is of people, a trait consistent throughout the novel. I didn’t pick this example for any reason except it was when I realised what a masterclass of writing I was reading. Eva is consistently an unreliable narrator, which I won’t expand too much on as understanding that is part of the enjoyment of the book, but the separation of character and narrator voice here is what makes the story so immersive.
Motherhood is often seen as an indelible part of being a woman, and that idea is consistently challenged in this book. As a reader, coming across those frequent ‘you‘s that may be directed to Eva’s husband but feel as though they are directed to us, you are asked to have an opinion, or to take a side. This is more noticeable because politics remains in the background throughout the book; the 2000 presidential election is only contextual, and Eva’s deliberate neglect of it is very noticeable. Similarly, the politics of guns in America are only touched upon a little, which means there is little else for this story to focus on but motherhood. Because of this, because we are receiving Eva’s letters, there is no way you will not feel something when you finish this book.
Plot wise, the chronological account of Kevin’s life does become a little banal towards the middle, but what keeps you going is all of the questions that are asked, and yet never answered. The only certainty is that Eva’s son is a murderer, and the events of that afternoon are recounted by her with such clinical and yet personal detail, events you have been waiting the whole book to finally understand, that there are absolutely no questions answered within that account. We are asked to make up our own minds on a situation where even Eva has not.
When I Lived in Modern Times – Linda Grant (2000 winner)
Synopsis: It is April 1946. Evelyn Sert, twenty years old, a hairdresser from Soho, sails for Palestine, where Jewish refugees and idealists are gathering from across Europe to start a new life in a brand-new country. In the glittering, cosmopolitan, Bauhaus city of Tel Aviv, anything seems possible – the new self, new Jew, new woman are all feasible.
Publisher: Granta Books
Unexpectedly, this book is a coming-of-age story. Although this is primarily Evelyn’s coming of age, recounting her childhood and adulthood, this is synchronous with the end of WW2, where everything seems possible but few things may be. The story begins with Evelyn as a child, living through the war in London, a girl who has no past in a place with a ‘continuous’ one. It is a first-person account that is essentially about a Jewish woman trying to discover her own identity. The short length works to its advantage as you are really only given the part of Evelyn’s life the title talks about: when she lived in modern times, i.e. when she relocates to Palestine.
The idea of the modern, and how Evelyn associates that with the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine is really repetitive, and used cleverly. It epitomises how the book is essentially Evelyn’s struggle with a past she cannot find, and a future that seems out of her reach. There are so many sentences in this book I highlighted because of how directly it spoke about this struggle. “Our stories sat on our shoulders like a second head, facing the way we had come.” This is an immigrant story of time immemorial, and framed particularly within the context of the Jewish Diaspora, it becomes potent, as Evelyn settles in Tel Aviv, “where nothing was old and everything had an explanation.”
I was not expecting to enjoy this book as much as I did. I have often found that stories about this period in history are so political they’re unenjoyable. This book, however, deftly includes all of the nasty aspects of history, even if it is not said outright. For example, the book is set in a Palestine that was under the British Mandate, and this and the later colonialism, if it is not directly talked about aside from once, is clearly represented to the reader, even through Evelyn, who does not always understand it. Like most immigrants, she straddles two different lines of identity, but the thing she is never confused about is her identity as a woman.
Evelyn is a hairdresser, a profession inextricable from being a woman, and one she learned from her mother. She frequently mentions about wanting to be subsumed into a passive kind of femininity: “he made me want to be a natural girl,” partly as a safety net against the violence and uncertainty around her. Like everything else, this is about Evelyn’s struggle to know who she is, and in becoming passive, she falls into the path set out by her mother, suggesting she is more in tune with her path than she thinks she is. The repetitive themes of the novel, and lack of clear answers about the big questions, makes it a book that is not only easy to read, but captivating.
One of the things that struck me about these three books is how much violence is a part of each of them. Of course this will not be true for every book where the identity of womanhood is a central theme, but it’s interesting that it seems inescapable here, in whichever form it takes. This was interesting also because each three are narrated quite similarly – accounts looking back into the past – so what does that say about the life of a woman?
Next month I hope to read books centring around the theme of love. I’m really looking forward to this one, as two of the books are the most recent winners!
Here’s what I’ll be reading:
An American Marriage – Tayari Jones (2019 winner)
Home Fire – Kamila Shamsie (2018 winner)
The Idea of Perfection – Kate Grenville (2001 winner)
Check out my Reading Women Challenge reviews for April and follow my blog to be notified when I post the next review!