UK Publisher: HQ
Genre: Dystopic fiction, feminist fiction
Silence can be deafening.
Jean McClellan spends her time in almost complete silence, limited to just one hundred words a day. Any more, and a thousand volts of electricity will course through her veins.
Now the new government is in power, everything has changed. But only if you’re a woman.
Almost overnight, bank accounts are frozen, passports are taken away and seventy million women lose their jobs. Even more terrifyingly, young girls are no longer taught to read or write.
For herself, her daughter, and for every woman silenced, Jean will reclaim her voice. This is only the beginning…
[100 WORD LIMIT REACHED]
I don’t necessarily think it’s a co-incidence that this book was marketed with a black, white and red cover, all bold lines and sharp angles. It would sit on a shelf next to The Power and The Handmaid’s Tale, looking as though it was always meant to be there. It absolutely belongs there alongside them. It’s almost as though there is a uniform for feminist dystopic novels, and VOX wears it very well.
I read the first 50 or so pages of this book in one sitting – it’s a quick read, although by no means an easy one, with a short chapters and a narrative that is tight and driving – and when I put it down for the night I was so wound tight with righteous indignation and fury I began to think that maybe I wouldn’t be able to handle this book on its own. For the first time since starting this blog I thought I might have to read two books concurrently – this one, and then something a bit happier to help me calm down. Something which didn’t so accurately represent the most reprehensible arguments seen on the internet, something which didn’t show their creeping influence, and which didn’t feel like a frighteningly likely possible future for society.
After the first 50 pages, however, it got a lot easier. The opening was set-up, and when the plot became apparent, Jean regained some agency and things felt a bit easier to handle. I appreciated the carefully thought-out juxtaposition of Jean being an expert in aphasia – the loss of language after brain damage – and then having her own language taken from her. I liked it even better when this turned out to be not just a bit of well-crafted narrative irony, but actually integral to the plot. The President’s brother has had a brain injury, and is suffering from aphasia! He must be cured! So Jean gets her word counter removed, and negotiates the removal of her daughter’s, and returns to work, albeit into a workplace that respects her significantly less than it did before it all happened.
Of course, the story isn’t as simple as that, when dealing with totalitarian governments and oppressive regimes, and there are conspiracies up the wazoo – not helped by the fact that Jean is working with the man she had an affair with, and still loves. The stakes are very high, and honestly the hardest thing for me was the personal element of it. Jean’s eldest son has been indoctrinated into the cult of the current regime, and the way he speaks to his mother, about women, and treats his younger sister, are all horrifying to me. Having that poison in your home and being unable to do anything about it really bothered me. Her husband’s lack of incentive to try and do anything about it either was maddening, his approach often seeming to say “there are good points on both sides”, even when one side is full of hate and lies.
As I mentioned above, this book is a quick read but not an easy read. Refreshingly, there was no explicit rape or any real threat of it towards Jean, although there were mentions of “camps” for gay people set up to try and convert them (homosexuality has been outlawed, as has pre-marital sex and extra-marital sex – although the latter only for women, not men), and “clubs” staffed with unmarried women for the use of government officials. Women can choose whether to marry someone – as in, literally anyone who is available – and live in a loveless marriage, and then probably be raped by their husband; or work in a brothel. Jean does think about the threat this poses for her daughter, but it’s not the most pressing – or sinister – part of the narrative. The counters are brutal, the indoctrination is harrowing, and the surveillance and citizen-reporting schemes have Orwell’s influence stamped all over them. Language and communication are the key themes – the risk of messages being intercepted, the risks of losing language completely, the powerlessness which comes from being unable to communicate and entirely cut off – sign language is banned and watched for, writing implements and books are locked away, technology is removed from all women. The only permissible input is from the schools or state-approved TV channels. I will note that a lack of explicit rape doesn’t mean there isn’t potentially triggering content in there – the misogyny is intense, there’s talk of sexual conversion, self-harm, suicide, imprisonment. It’s not a happy book.
The time period covered in the book is quite short, which perhaps helps to push the narrative along. There’s an urgency, a need to find answers or escape, but also an inevitability – once the experiment is over, what will happen to Jean and her daughter? Whilst Jean’s memories often take her back to times in the run-up to the new regime, these are smaller sections mostly used to frame her current experience. It works well and rounds out the narrative without bogging it down too much in exposition. Of course the rush (and the conspiracies and the misogyny) made things seem quite stressful for me. But, unlike The Power which was unforgivingly dark and bleak, Dalcher manages to mix in a little hope and relief, making it easier to handle the distressing bits of the story.
Of the feminist novels I’ve read in the last 18 months, I think this is one of my favourites, but I suspect many would see it as somewhat lightweight in comparison to other heavy-hitters. I think it works well, and it’s nice to have novels which hit different points on the spectrum of feminist literature. This is my sort of speed. It probably won’t be everyone’s.
- A clever, fast-paced dystopic, conspiracy thriller, looking at language and the power it can hold.
- Less bleak than other feminist novels (The Power, The Handmaid’s Tale), but I found that in some ways it packed a harder emotional punch because it more closely mimicked current society. I couldn’t distance myself in the same way.
- The misogyny in this is very real and intense. I was very affected by it, so be aware of this as it could potentially be triggering.
Rating: 5/5 – it upset me to begin with but by the ending I felt like I had been on a journey and found things resolved at the end.