“Why do people say “grow some balls”? Balls are weak and sensitive. If you wanna be tough, grow a vagina. Those things can take a pounding.” (Sheng Wang, probably)

I didn’t plan for the theme for this week’s post to be feminism, but then my weekend consisted of thinking of little else, so I decided feminism it had to be. So, what happened this weekend?  I watched Caitlin Moran being interviewed by India Knight as part of this year’s Hay sessions, Beyonce’s Chime for Change concert was televised, I read an interview with Joss Whedon talking about Buffy as a role model and why he didn’t want her turned into a doll, there was an article about feminist activism in the digital age. Then I switched on Radio 4 for Book Club and the author was discussing his creation of strong female characters (more of that later).  Once I’d decided on the theme for this post, I wondered if this meant branching out from discussing fiction, as I gazed at my bookshelves trying to decide between Germaine Greer, Susie Orbach, Caitlin Moran, Naomi Wolf, Natasha Walter…  but then I realised I was being incredibly short-sighted.  I wanted this blog to be about fiction and there was no reason to change (but I still wanted to name-check a few authors, please check them out if you haven’t already).  Feminism is about the world we live in, and fiction writing and reading is part of that – for some of us, a huge part… So, fiction it is. I’ve chosen one classic of feminist literature and one less obvious choice.  Also, one by a female author and one by a male, because I don’t think feminism is about the exclusion of men (that’s just made me think of another recommendation, Feminist Ryan Gosling by Danielle Henderson, a great gift for the feminist Gosling fan in your life, of which surely there are many). Let’s smash the patriarchy!

Firstly, The Women’s Room by Marilyn French (1977, my copy Warner Books 1993). Written during the 1970s feminist movement, this was French’s first novel and has become one of feminism’s classic texts.  It’s a huge tome – just shy of 700 pages in my copy, but it has a very readable style and isn’t an arduous “but-I-know-this-is-good-for-me” experience. The central protagonist is Mira, a baby-boomer who grows up to live the domestic idyll, married to a doctor (called Norm, geddit?) and with 2 children who she raises in middle-class suburbia. Her friends are all like her, and discontent and extra-marital affairs abound as they come to terms with the limitations of the lives they’ve wandered into.  After the breakdown of her marriage, Mira attends Harvard and plans to become a teacher.  Here she has her consciousness awakened by Val, a feminist.  It is this character that voices the more extreme views within the book, the most famous probably being “all men are rapists”.  Eek.  Don’t let that put you off though, as the novel generally has a less extreme approach to issues, and as an insight into militant 1970s feminism the character of Val is worth sticking with.  There is a lot of angry polemic, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and here there is enough narrative drive to make you feel you’re not being battered over the head with it.  Mira is a character you root for, and she’s not a victim:

“Ever since the divorce, she had grown more and more bitter at that injustice, at the injustice of the way the world treats women, at Norm’s injustice to her.  And all she was doing was getting more bitter, destroying her own life, what was left of it.  There is no justice . there was no way to make up for the past. There was nothing that could make up for the past.  She sat stunned for a while, freed of a burden, feeling her mouth soften, her brow unline. […] There was no justice, there was only life. And life she had.”

In some ways The Women’s Room has dated. Things are different to how they were in 1977.  In other ways it hasn’t dated at all and the things that its angry about are still a source of inequality today; as a novel that looks at how “women’s work” is undervalued, it is entirely current as long as gender pay gaps persist, which they do. The Women’s Room is an approachable way to start to look at feminist issues through narrative.

Secondly, Quarantine by Jim Crace (1997, Penguin).  This may not seem an obvious choice, but it was the novel discussed on Radio 4’s Book Club this week, where Crace identified himself as a feminist:

“I guess it’s a question of being a right-on bloke, that’s lived in through the seventies and eighties […] what I do want to do with the women in my books though, is not have Hollywood type heroines, in which good looks are the gateway to being virtuous and having good luck, and having good fortune, and having long marriages and lots of handsome children. That seems to me to be a very pessimistic view of the world, that only very good-looking women are going to do well in the world. So what I want to do in all of my books, is to present women who are admirable for other reasons. They are strong women, and I like that, and in a way if you’re spending as many hours alone in your house as I do, then you might as well have the company of women that you’ve created who you like.”

So, who are the women of Quarantine?  They are Miri and Marta, living in Judea around 2000 years ago.  Miri is married to Musa, a truly evil man to the point of possibly being the embodiment of Satan.  He is a trader, one who exploits and commodifies all: “He looked each of them in the face as if they were for sale.  He could tell at once what they were worth.”  Miri doesn’t even pretend to like him. Marta enters the desert to fast for fertility:

“Husbands were amusing, too.  At least, they were amusing when they were out of sight.  Their vanities and tempers could be joked about among women friends at the ovens or the well.  Grumbling and laughing at their curdy husbands made the bread rise and the yoghurt set.  But Marta could not find the comedy in Thaniel.  He’d made her and his first wife barren, she was sure, with his dry heart and sparking tongue.  They were like millstones without oil.  But – Marta was an optimist – she still believed everything would be a joy if she could have his child.”

Set 2000 years apart, The Women’s Room and Quarantine both highlight the marriage laws remaining resolutely on the man’s side.  Quarantine however, is resolutely on the women’s side, as they fight to find their way in a society that is not built for them. The women are the strongest characters in the novel, and this may be somewhat surprising when you consider there is another man in the desert too, a young Galilean:

“He was open mouthed.  He looped his tongue from side to side, circling his lips, tasting the atmosphere for smells.  In fact his sense of smell had been so bludgeoned by the heat and by his thirst that he could not detect the sulphur even. He was parched and faint.  His lips were cracked…he was a traveller called Jesus, from the cooler, farming valleys in the north…”

The word quarantine comes from the Italian quarantena, meaning 40 days, and so the title takes on a layered meaning.  The characters are in quarantine from the rest of society for various reasons, including Jesus spending forty days in the desert as part of his spiritual journey. Quarantine is a haunting, beautifully written novel about characters on the outskirts, who are given a space of their own within this story.

Here are the novels, hanging out with Germaine Greer: