Rating: 5 stars (but really 100 stars, 1000 stars, all the stars)
I want to say so many things about this book. I want to talk about it as allegory, as fact, as reportage, as fucked up fairytale. But equally I don’t want to say too much, because I don’t want to take away from anyone the experience I’ve just had. This book contains an important truth. It is brutal and grubby and horrifying. And yet it is gentle. It doesn’t bludgeon. It doesn’t preach. It just tells the truth.
I will try to write a review, then, without really writing a review.
Wood’s writing reminds me of Margaret Atwood. Not a word is wasted. This is something I’ve noticed about Australian literature (mainly on the basis of Peter Carey’s books, but recently this book and Shirley Barrett’s) – there are no superfluous words but the descriptions are as searing as the sun on the red earth of the outback.
There are wonderful descriptions from the start. These quotes are from within the first few pages:
Like the burred head on a screw, her thoughts can find no purchase.
The man sighs and stops rattling paper. It is as if he is in a play, and his job is to make the sound of paper rattling, and Verla has interrupted his performance.
A flock of white cockatoos arrived, landing noisily down on the flat, the white line of them billowing and settling like a thrown bedsheet.
I went into this book with limited knowledge. I’m glad the only review I read was Weezelle’s. Hers is an anti-review for good reason. Reading this book should be an experience of discovery, one you share with the characters. Being fore armed is not a good move, in my opinion. You need to move through the story with them to get the full force of this incredible book.
The book begins with a menacing feel. Where are these women and why? What has happened to them and to society? Why are they called sluts and whores? Why have they been incarcerated? Are they in an asylum, a prison, a boot camp?
Yolanda’s previous life, her childhood, seems normal. Verla’s life, too. They have had normal childhoods and in early adulthood have travelled and experienced the world. But something has gone horribly wrong.
Recollections emerge. Shared crimes. Not keeping their mouths shut when they took offence. Not being nice quiet girls who accepted it was their fault.
The story solidifies gradually, pulling together the strands of experience much as the women are pulled together on their leashes. It made me think of Tenko, and of the experiences of John McCarthy, Brian Keenan and Terry Waite. It made me wonder what the Nigerian school girls kidnapped by Boko Haram might be going through. I bet they aren’t experiencing a fraction of the (just about) civilised behaviour that (just about) tempers the brutality in this book.
Right until the end, as everything changes, the tension is sustained. Then you reach the end and you realise that, for most of the characters, nothing has changed.
The book is an amplification of the daily experience of many women. You only have to read the comments and behaviours collated by the Everyday Sexism project to get a feel for what life can be like for women. What we’re supposed to feel flattered by, how we’re supposed to behave to make men and other women feel better about their inadequacies and insecurities, how every single decision we make, conscious or not, makes us responsible for everything because we didn’t stop men making the decisions they took.
I’ve only had two really offensive encounters with unreconstructed men, both of them men I considered friends. Both of whom laid the blame for their behaviour at my door. Needless to say, I stopped being friends with them, and was surprised by the lack of support from female friends who thought the men were amazing. The rest of the time it has been men of an older generation assuming my older male colleague is my boss, when it’s the other way around, and my older male colleague not correcting them, or some kind of “Woarrrrgh” sound from a passing car, or some comment from a stranger on social media when I’ve dared to express an opinion. That kind of low level but still annoying sexism that means nothing when you’re feeling confident, but can devastate if you’re feeling vulnerable.
I’ve sidetracked from my review. My review that should simply say – read this book, it is important, and it is beautifully written.
A last quote:
It was why they were here, she understood now. For the hatred of what came out of you, what you contained. What you were capable of. She understood because she shared it, this dull fear and hatred of her body.
There’s the rub.