A year ago today, the Women’s March was a movement seen and heard throughout the world. In hundreds of cities on all seven continents, over five million people marched in support of women’s rights, hoping for a beginning to true equality and an end to rape culture. Over the past year, we’ve seen an increasing groundswell that has included sudden attention to the #MeToo movement and a partial overhaul of the entertainment industry, where long-standing accusations of sexual coercion and assault are finally being believed. This is only a start, though; renewed attacks on rights and freedoms, as well as a desperate need for intersectionality in feminism, demand constant, thoughtful vigilance. The three new works in this week’s book club do what issue-based writing does best: The novels take reality and spin it into breathtaking, cautionary allegory, and a memoir takes a personal experience and makes it universal. Together, they’ll convince you that fighting the patriarchy is a full-time job, but a meaningful one.
1. Red Clocks by Leni Zumas ($26): Zumas’ novel gives us a setup with an all-too-plausible dystopia: “Two years ago the US Congress ratified the Personhood Amendment, which gives the constitutional right to life, liberty, and property to a fertilized egg at the moment of conception. Abortion is now illegal in all fifty states. Abortion providers can be charged with second-degree murder, abortion seekers with conspiracy to commit murder. In vitro fertilization, too, is federally banned… (The embryos can’t give their consent to be moved.) She was just quietly teaching history when it happened. Woke up one morning to a president-elect she hadn’t voted for. This man thought women who miscarried should pay for funerals for the fetal tissue and thought a lab technician who accidentally dropped an embryo during in vitro transfer was guilty of manslaughter.”
There’s an added, nasty twist to this law: Not only are abortion restrictions the tightest they can possibly be and IVF banned, but very soon it’s also going to be illegal to be a single parent. Meaning that singles can’t adopt, and if you’re not married and you’re pregnant, you’d better find a husband fast. Ro, “The Biographer,” is a single feminist history teacher desperately trying to get pregnant before this rule becomes law. Susan, her coworker and rival, is “The Wife,” horribly unhappy in her marriage. Gin, “The Mender,” offers natural abortifacients from her cabin in the woods, despite the potential risk. “The Daughter,” Mattie, is a pregnant high schooler who has seen her friend in the same situation go to jail for trying a “home remedy.”
Their stories are paralleled by the life of The Biographer’s subject, a fictional polar explorer called Eivør Minervudottir whose life in the 19th-century seems less restrictive than that of the woman who chronicles her. Things are complicated by the “Pink Wall” that prevents American women from escaping to Canada for the procedures: Complicit in “uphold[ing] US law,” Canada will send the women home for prosecution. Closer to real life than even The Handmaid’s Tale, Red Clocks is a wake-up call to how close a world like this really is.
2. The Beauty by Alia Whiteley ($13): Whiteley’s novella, now getting its first North American publication, was shortlisted for the Shirley Jackson and Sabotage Awards, and is on the James Tiptree Jr. Honors List. It’s not hard to see why; it’s creepy, speculative, apocalyptic, and grotesque. Six years after all the women in the world died from a mysterious creeping fungal illness, mushrooms begin to sprout from their graves. A group of men has left the city to live in the Valley of the Rocks, and they are the first to see the phenomenon. It’s chronicled by the group’s storyteller, “Nathan, just twenty-three and given to the curation of stories.”
“I listen, retain, then polish and release them over the fire at night, when the others hush and lean forward in their desire to hear of the past,” Nathan says. “They crave romance, particularly when autumn sets in and cold nights await them, and so I speak of Alice, and Bethany, and Sarah, and Val, and other dead women who all once had lustrous hair and never a bad word on their plump lips. I can remember this is not how they were; I knew them, I knew them! Only six years have passed and yet I mythologize them as if it is six thousand. I am not culpable. Language is changing, like the earth, like the sea. We live in lonely, fateful flux, outnumbered and outgrown.”
The men, numbers unknown, hunker down for what they believe to be the end of humanity. Then, something strange happens; Nate finds himself pulled underground and confronted by a mushroom-woman. She is one of many, and they wish to join the Group. With new extreme strength and telepathic will, these fungal creatures (the “Beauties”) soon take over the traditional male gender roles, doing physical labor and assuming control of relationships. Men who disobey or show bigotry are “disassembled.” Nathan and others begin to wonder if his stories of peace and love are just mere warped propaganda, and if anyone can really understand the true nature of The Beauty. Call it a Portobello protest.
3. Body Full of Stars: Female Rage and My Passage into Motherhood by Molly Caro May ($26): Body horror like that of The Beauty is rooted in real fear, and very little gets at the crux of women’s body horror like pregnancy. Molly Caro May had a particularly difficult time after her pregnancy, where it felt like her body was betraying her: She dealt with severe bladder incontinence, a thyroid imbalance that went undiagnosed for months, and pelvic dysfunction. Worst was dealing with a society where nobody wanted to talk about any of this with her, leading to embarrassment about her own body, and debilitating postpartum rage. May’s book embraces the knowledge that nothing creates change like speaking up.
May honestly and candidly explores the intense anger she felt, and her struggle with premenstrual dysphoric disorder. She also began to appreciate certain aspects of her body, such as menstruation, in a way that she hadn’t before. Most of all, though, she began to explore the relationships she had with the other women in her life, family and friends.
“The fracture appears,” May writes. “You fall to your knees and wonder: Is it situational, historical, chemical, ancestral, physiological, mental? It may be all of these. It may be none. Is it just who I am? Well, it isn’t you and it is you. It is an energy you are meeting. …Yes, you are responsible for how you manage it. But you aren’t necessarily it. You are in a relationship with it. You start to hear it, as questions of it, even love it. This can be hard. This can also be easy. Then you ask it to reroute. Please and thank you. You are in a process of birthing some part of yourself. Your whole life is a series of births. We only learn and relearn this by living it.”
What novels give you energy to fight for equality? Tag us in your next patriarchy-smashing read @BritandCo.
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