The Female Man
30 August 2015 4 Comments
Author: Joanna Russ
Summary: Joanna’s world is recognisable; it’s very much like ours. So is Jeannine’s–except that in hers the Second World War never happened, the Great Depression is still going on, and inequality is even more rampant.
But Janet’s world is different. On the planet Whileaway there is no problem of relations between the sexes because there is only one. Janet is unfettered, she is free to lead her life as she wants, as an able and competent being, as a female man.
Rating: ★★★★☆ 3.5/5
Review: There are two things i need to explain in this review. What i loved about this book, and why it took me a month to read it. It was a random purchase from a library book sale, and i was instantly intrigued and eager to read it. Science fiction and gender? Yes, yes please.
On the gender front, this book is brilliant, and the science fiction aspect only helps explore things. It brings together four versions of the same woman (the author, Joanna Russ, essentially), from alternate realities and times. One from a 1930s version of the present day, one from a time unspecified but which represents the author’s and readers own time, one from the female-only world of Whileaway, and lastly one from a world which is engaged in a literal war of the sexes. Their views on their worlds and their own identity and behaviour differ wildly, but still they stick together, travelling and learning.
Honestly, i wished i’d read the book with a pencil in hand to mark the lines and passages that struck me as right, as making the best point, as putting the perfect words to things i have felt and experienced all my life. There were so, so many. There was one particular chapter that spanned several pages, and i just want to type it out, word for word, and make the world read it. I’ll have to settle for quoting here the line that summed up a lot of it so succinctly for me:
For years I have been saying Let me in, Love me, Approve me, Define me, Regulate me, Validate me, Support me. Now I say Move over.
Urgh, this book just makes my heart feel more alive, feel a glimmer of hope, feel like it’s not just me; it’s all women, in all walks of life, in all sorts of ways. It makes me feel understood and not alone. Jael, in particular, also made me feel fucking empowered. And the very end, damn. That very last paragraph. This book will stay with me for a long time.
And so, why only 3.5/5? Why did it take me so long to read? Because as a work of fiction, as a story… it fell so flat. I think this book would work so much better as a series of essays, because that is already what it reads like, on the whole, to me. The thing the story lacked was a strong narrative and any kind of drive, which in turn left me with no drive to keep reading, to keep picking up the book. I had no desire to know what happened next, because nothing was happening. It felt a lot like free writing at times, like character studies at others, and often it was not clear who was narrating. Some sections are written in first person, but it’s not easy to distinguish whose, which took my mind away from the story and the meaning, and i began to focus on details and technicalities.
I enjoyed the book immensely when i was reading it, but found it so hard to pick up again when i wasn’t. I enjoyed each section and the individual messages being conveyed, but the story they were supposed to fit around just seemed non-existent. I would have liked more structure to the chapters and individual stories told throughout the book, so they each existed in their own terms, rather than in and around a narrative that failed to make the most of itself around them.
Despite the haphazard structure and lacking narrative, there was so much to love about this book, and i will be seeking out more of Russ’ feminist science fiction works. I hope more of it weaves the two together more seamlessly into a worthy story, without compromising on the amazing feminist literary criticism. Some might argue that this book is outdated, but i wonder which world they are living in, because it’s not one of the ones represented in this book.
This knocks two squares off my Bookish Bingo: LGBT main character and a main character my age.