10 books of women's awakenings: fiction
Somehow, this was harder than my last post, on nonfiction. Perhaps because during the first three or four decades of my life I read vastly more fiction than nonfiction, and so there are so many more titles to choose from. There was the ever-present difficulty of trying not to focus on the novels I have loved best, or which moved and affected me deeply – which would, except for one or two titles here, probably be a different list; nor on the very, very many which made me think deeply – but on those that were most transformative. Also, I know exactly how it is: five minutes after I’ve pressed the button, I’ll think of five more that I was an idiot to leave out. It is curious that I couldn’t find a single book read in childhood which could contribute to this list, though there were for sure many that I loved – but anyway: after much agonising, here they are; I’ve taken much pleasure in searching out, where possible, the cover images of the ancient editions I still possess. Again, they’re ordered according to the time in my life when I read them, earliest first.
The Rainbow, by D.H. Lawrence
I guess I should also include Women in Love along with this one, as together they are, to me, very much about women’s awakenings. But The Rainbow affected me much more deeply. It was one of the books I studied for ‘A’ level English Literature, and I read it at 16, having previously been brought up on a typical all-girls-grammar-school diet of Jane Austen and George Eliot (and, god help us, the likes of Milton’s Samson Agonistes, which is the direst, most depressing piece of writing I’ve ever had the misfortune to be forced to study). Reading Lawrence was like diving into a clear, cold pool on a hot day. It shook up my whole view of the world, opened my eyes for the first time to what it really is to live in relationship with the natural world.
The Rainbow paints a picture of a world in transition, of the modern move from pastoral to urban, from a land-focused, hard but deeply nourishing life to dependence on industry. It follows several generations of an English family, the Brangwens, through that transition. The first generation of Brangwens that we meet are farmers, and their connection with the land and the natural world is deep, visceral and vivid:
‘They felt the rush of the sap in spring, they knew the wave which cannot halt, but every year throws forward the seed in begetting, and, falling back, leaves the young-born on the earth. They knew the intercourse between heaven and earth, sunshine drawn into the breast and bowels, the rain sucked up in the day-time, nakedness that comes under the wind in autumn, showing the birds’ nests no longer worth hiding …’
As the book progresses, though, and the narrative moves into the modern age, it becomes populated with characters who have lost that connection to the land that was the mainstay of previous generations’ existence. Most of Lawrence’s writing throughout his life was concerned with a critique of Modernity: with the creeping progress of industrialisation, with the consequent loss of our connection to the natural world and its rhythms and its seasons. He argued passionately that we have constructed an exclusively human world for ourselves, and in so doing, we have cut ourselves off from the source of our belonging: the land, and the nonhuman others who occupy it with us. We have lost touch with that sense of being a part of the natural world, of being in our bodies, in the seasons, and in present time. The ultimate result of such abstraction from nature, the body, and the present, he wrote, is the destruction of any possibility of inner peace and fulfilment, and of community. As a child brought up on the fringes of an industrial steel town, I drank up this message and internalised it so deeply that it has never left me.
The Women’s Room, by Marilyn French
I suspect this would be on the list of many women of my own age or older, as it’s often described as one of the most influential books of the modern feminist movement. I read it when I was 17, and it was another of those books which challenged my view of the world I had been brought up in, where men ruled all roosts and women’s freedoms were few. The book is set in America in the 1950s, and describes the slow and painful awakening of Mira Ward, who begins as a conventional and submissive young woman in a marriage to an unsympathetic man who believes it is his right to rule not just his own life, but hers. Beginning in an age when women were expected to be no more than housewives and mothers, the book charts Mira’s gradual and often painful journey to independence. The Women’s Room was radical for its times, and when it was published, was criticised heavily in the conservative press of the day. But the frequency with which so many women of my acquaintance cite it as pivotal to their own awakenings says all that needs to be said about its value. It showed me a trap that I vowed never to fall into. (I fell into a few others in my time, but never that one!)
The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood
Again, this one will be no surprise to many of you. It struck horror into my heart, and it still does. The pity of it is that as time progresses, we seem to creep closer to the terrifying possibilities Atwood describes rather than further away. An America with Donald Trump as a serious candidate for President AGAIN is an America in which anything might happen. And that’s without considering threats from further afield. The Handmaid’s Tale is a dystopian novel set in a future America in which a series of epidemics and chemical exposures have rendered the majority of the population sterile. A right-wing Christian fundamentalist theocracy takes power, and refashions the structure of American society. The country, which is now called Gilead, is ruled by the rich and powerful élite; women who appear to be fertile may become ‘Handmaids’, who are forced to act as concubines to the ruling males so that they can have children. The story centres around Offred, who is enslaved and forced to become a Handmaid to a childless couple: a high-ranking commander and his embittered wife, Serena Joy. In the unlikely event that you haven’t read it, do so very soon. This future could so easily become our present.
Atlas Shrugged, by Ayn Rand
Yes, I know. I can hear all the sharp intakes of breath. Ayn Rand had some seriously ugly ideas, and appears to have been a fairly ugly woman. When I read Atlas Shrugged, in my mid-twenties, I didn’t know any of that. And although I didn’t agree with so much of it (and for sure, agree with even less now) I nevertheless found it a deeply transformative book. I loved it, and I loved it passionately. Part of me still does. Why? For all the wrong reasons – ‘wrong’ in the sense that they have nothing to do with Rand’s primary philosophies of life. I do not, for example, worship the cult of the individual, or rationalism. I do not worship industrialisation. I absolutely do not and never did worship capitalism. I abhor pretty much every political idea that Ayn Rand promoted (except for her hatred of totalitarianism). And yet, completely unaware of all this background, never having heard of ‘objectivism’, having absolutely no idea of who Ayn Rand was, in my early twenties I found this novel on a library shelf one day and, because I liked the title, I took it home and read it. And I loved Atlas Shrugged. I loved it because in it, people said, ‘Enough: I will not participate in a mechanistic world that leeches all joy and creativity’. I loved it because I found characters (deeply flawed, often unidimensional, yes, I know) who did not compromise what they believed to be good and true.
I’m sure that many of you will argue that I shouldn’t have loved the book for those reasons, and that if I did love it in any way at all, it’s because I didn’t understand how deeply pernicious it is. But I am very clear on one thing: there are still passages in this book which I copied out once into a notebook and which can bring tears to my eyes. These are the passages that insist on authenticity, and truth. More often than not (but not always …) I don’t like the particular forms of authenticity and truth that are offered in this book. But I love the characters who wouldn’t give up, who refused to conform, to fail, to give in to a system which they believed (whether ‘correctly’, or not) was heartless and joyless. I read this book naively, perhaps, and from a largely apolitical perspective. What did it teach me? Not to love capitalism, or individualism, or rationalism or industrialisation. But to stand tall, and stand true. To shrug, rather than conform to a system which seems to cripple the soul. To bring down a system by leaving it, rather than by trying to blow it up. It’s a lesson that’s still relevant today – ironically, perhaps, in order to bring down capitalism rather than, as Rand wanted, to save it. The way to bring the system down is to refuse to participate in it. Take it underground. Shrug.
Fairy Tale, by Alice Thomas Ellis
This too, and for different reasons, will probably strike many people as a curious book for such a list. So why is it here? Because it contributed to a shift in my worldview. I always found it easy, as a child and a teenager and an adult, to find enchantment in fairy tales, fantasy and science fiction. That was easy: those were different worlds, created worlds, not ours. But Alice Thomas Ellis, and a bunch of others like her who I found afterwards (I’m thinking, for example, of Janice Elliot’s stunning The Sadness of Witches – also in line for a ‘best title’ award) showed me that you could live an enchanted life in this one too, even if you were an adult. All you had to do was tilt your head at a different angle, look into the shadows out of the corner of your eye. I’ve spent many years cultivating that art. The story-world she created was so much more believable to me than more fantastical magical realist writers like Angela Carter, who I never could really warm to. And the elegant precision of her darkly humorous prose seemed to perfectly represent the quintessential British style of the day. Two others of Alice Thomas Ellis’ books remain on my bookshelves: Unexplained Laughter, and The Inn at the Edge of the World. Both also are recommended, but Fairy Tale stayed with me more.
The Golden Notebook, by Doris Lessing
As with The Women’s Room and The Handmaid’s Tale, I fear I’m not being very original here. So much has been written about this novel that I hardly know where to begin. For me, the beauty of this particular book wasn’t that it was a feminist novel; by the time I’d read it, when I was around 30, I’d taken in all the feminist perspectives I would ever need for a good while, and this is a book that very much reflected 1960s ideas and politics. The beauty of it, then, was in many other things, and I’m afraid I’m not going to be much use at putting them into coherent words. If I take this novel and add it to The Four-Gated City, another of the Lessing novels that I loved, and then Shikasta, which I positively adored and have read again and again, then the message I take from her writing goes something like this: the world is not as it seems. We are sleepwalkers, even when we think we are most awake. We see the world through a veil. The ones who are called ‘crazy’ are often the people who know this best; sometimes the maddest are the sanest of us: they are the ones who see through the veil. These labels, then, make no sense. Breaking down is inevitable if you want truly to see the world for what it is. Lessing, of course, was profoundly influenced by Sufi teacher Imries Shah, and my attempts to delve into the fascinating worldview that haunts all of Lessing’s fiction led me down a rewarding path of research into wider Sufi philosophy. This incredibly complex and richly layered book opened up a wide and airy space in my head that it’s taken a couple more decades to work through. I suspect everyone who reads it takes away something different from it. But do read it anyway! (And read Shikasta, too …)
Oyster, by Janette Turner Hospital
As I work my way through these books, I’m feeling increasingly insecure about my ability to express why they’re on this list. So often the novels I’ve loved, the novels that have remained with me, that have shifted the way I see the world, have done so (like Lessing’s, above) because of the worldview they seemed to embody, and the remarkable prose/language they use in order to embody it, rather than because of a particular story, plot or character. Here is the ‘official’ blurb about Oyster:
Stories do insist on being told. Even the stories of hidden lives and towns and opal reefs. By cunning intention, and sometimes by discreet bribery (or other dispatch) of government surveyors, the opal-mining town Outer Maroo has kept itself off maps. And yet people do stumble into town, because the seduction of nowhere is hard to resist. Two strangers reach Outer Maroo, searching for a stepdaughter and son who have mysteriously disappeared. There is a heavy, guilty feeling to the hot, parched-dry town. Mercy Given and Old Jess (everyone calls her Old Silence) watch from Ma and Bill Beresford’s store. On the verandah of Bernie’s Last Chance, the drinkers wait to take stock of the foreigners, before they return to their cattle properties or their sheep stations or to their stake-outs in the opal fields. Dukke Prophet crosses the street from The Living Word Gospel Hall. Young Alice Godwin whimpers. Outer Maroo. Population 87. Here two opposing cultures – the rough-diamond, boozing, fiercely individualistic bush folk and the teetotaller, church-going fundamentalists – used to coexist peaceably. Until the arrival of the cult messiah Oyster …
It tells you little about why I love it, so all I can say is – trust me. Read this, or read another novel by Australian-born Janette Turner Hospital. In all of them, her worldview – a worldview haunted by disappearances and dislocations, in which nothing is ever fully explained and life is utterly disorienting – seems so perfectly to describe the … weirdnesses … of contemporary postmodern life. And yet these novels, unlike so many which try to portray these aspects of postmodern society, are neither ironic nor clever-clever. They are full of heart, loss and longing, and written in some of the most beautiful prose I’ve ever encountered. In the UK, at least, Janette Turner Hospital has never been given the acclaim that I think is her due. Read the early novels, all of them: The Tiger in the Tiger Pit, Borderline, Charades, The Last Magician, Oyster. Every one of them beautiful and fascinating in its own way; I would be hard-pressed to tell you which I loved most. (I have struggled with her latest two novels, but that’s because they seemed to lack the depth of her earlier works.) Let yourself fall into this disturbing, dislocated world which she tells us is our own. And then ask yourself what anchors you in it. Because sometimes the most transformative novels don’t try to offer you the answers. Sometimes they just make you ask the right questions.
The Crossing, by Cormac McCarthy
This is neither a book by a woman, nor a book about a woman’s awakening. I guess there’s a female character in it somewhere, but if so I can’t remember: rounded female characters aren’t really McCarthy’s forte. But it had a profound impact on my own life, and so it belongs in this list. The Crossing is the second book in McCarthy’s The Border Trilogy. In this extract from If Women Rose Rooted, I explain why this book affected me so deeply:
‘It is the story of a boy who lives on a cattle ranch, and rescues a she-wolf from a trap he himself has set. The boy decides to take her back across the border to the mountains of Mexico, where he believes she came from. He travels with the injured and wary wolf, developing a deep bond with her, but once they’re in Mexico she is captured by officials who impound her and hand her over to a group of local men. They take her into an arena, where she is going to be made to fight every one of the town’s dogs in turn. The boy, knowing that she will sooner or later be torn apart, tries to rescue the heavily pregnant wolf, but he doesn’t succeed. He leaves the arena, fetches his rifle, returns, and shoots the wolf in the head. He then trades his rifle for the wolf’s carcass, and takes her to the hills astride his horse, to bury her:
He squatted over the wolf and touched her fur. He touched the cold and perfect teeth. The eye turned to the fire gave back no light and he closed it with his thumb and sat by her and put his hand upon her bloodied forehead and closed his own eyes that he could see her running in the starlight where the grass was wet and the sun’s coming as yet had not undone the rich matrix of creatures passed in the night before her … He took up her stiff head out of the leaves and held it or he reached to hold what cannot be held, what already ran among the mountains at once terrible and of a great beauty, like flowers that feed on flesh … But which cannot be held never be held and is no flower but is swift and a huntress and the wind itself is in terror of it and the world cannot lose it.
The world cannot lose it – but if I understood anything now, I understood that the world was going to lose it. We were going to lose it, we humans, and we didn’t seem even to care.
I broke down completely. I didn’t know quite what it was that I was weeping for, but I felt as if my heart was caving in. For the wolf, for all wolves, for all the pregnant females who are beaten by men, for all wild things, for the cruelty of humans, for the heart-broken boy, for my dogs, for the future death of my dogs, for the beauty of words, for my life, for all our lives, for the whole world which we were turning into a Wasteland. For all the Wastelands of the human spirit, for the Wasteland that I was creating out of my own life. ‘
The book was responsible for me finally packing up and moving to a croft in the farthest, remotest corner of the Isle of Lewis in May 2010. Truth is, many of McCarthy’s novels have affected me in this way. The Road, No Country For Old Men, Blood Meridian. These are novels which unflinchingly show the violence and ugliness in the human world for what it is. And yet, there is so much simple, grounded wisdom in so many of the key characters, and this is the quality which renders the books, in my eyes, so powerful and transformative.
Witch Light, by Susan Fletcher
Witch Light (originally published as Corrag) gave back to me what The Crossing took away: a sense of joy in the world. But it wasn’t joy in the world of humans: it was joy in relationship with the natural world. This is one of the most beautiful novels I’ve ever read; it expresses a way of being in the world which is genuinely ‘free’, genuinely rooted in the land. There are many other works of fiction which have offered similar characters, but I’ve never come across any which quite so perfectly describes the sense of being at one with the natural world.
The novel takes as its starting point the massacre of Glencoe when, at dawn on a winter’s day in 1692, King William III’s redcoats brutally slaughtered thirty-two members of the MacDonald clan, including women and children, because of their loyalty to the exiled Catholic James II. Forced to flee, many more died of exposure in the mountains. Although the MacDonalds had finally signed an oath to King William, they had done so six days late. And so they were killed. Fletcher tells this story through the eyes of a young woman called Corrag, whose name derives from a combination of her mother’s – Cora – and the insult which is most frequently thrown at her: ‘hag’. While Corrag is still a girl her mother is taken and then hung as a witch, and Corrag, finding herself with no other safe options, embarks on a life of wandering. When she finds herself following her mother’s instructions to head north and west, she comes finally to beautiful bleak Glencoe and finds a place, and a people, to whom she becomes deeply attached. And so, when the soldiers come, she does what she can to save them.
The novel opens after the massacre, with Corrag imprisoned in a primitive jail in Inverary, condemned to burn at the stake. While she waits for death to come, Charles Leslie, an Irish Jacobite, comes to her cell, searching for proof that might implicate the King William in the massacre and help put James back on the English throne. Corrag agrees to talk to him, but only if he will listen to and record her story from the beginning. The story which Corrag shares shows a young woman who is completely at one with the landscape she inhabits. Leslie describes her as having ‘an eye which sees the smaller parts of life’. Corrag, half-feral, with terminally tangled hair and a great tenderness for all living creatures, has a voice which is poetic, intense, and which reflects both the joy and the meaning that she finds in the natural world. Throughout all the hardships she faces, she never loses her sense of wonder. She shows us that the world is magical – not because she is a ‘witch’, but because there is magic in ‘the simple daily moments that we stop seeing’. When we look at the world through Corrag’s eyes, we are offered a reality in which we are encouraged to listen to ‘what powers are in us – in all of us. What we already know, if we choose to spend some time with ourselves.’ Corrag’s wisdom comes from the land, and she tries to explain the richness of her life to Charles Leslie as he looks at her, bedraggled in her filthy cell, waiting to be burned. Thinking her a poor creature, feeling sorry for her and what he considers to be her hard life.
‘You look sadly at me. Why? Look what I found. Look where I lived, and where I called home. Go to Glencoe. Stand amongst its peaks, and you will understand – what a gift it was, to live there … I had milk, and a fire, and a deerskin to sleep on. And if I called out my name the rocks gave it back to me. Corrag … The owls called it out.
… And poor? You think I was poor, in Glencoe? Far from it. No pennies, no. But when did pennies make a person truly rich? Folk seem to fill their lives with favours or a title or two – as if these are the things which matter, like happiness lies in a coin. Like the natural world and our place in it is worth far less than a stuffed purse, or a word like earl or duke. Perhaps, for them, it is. But that’s not my way and never was. I was at my richest as I sat cross-legged amongst the last of the foxgloves, watching a plump-bodied bee live his life. He pushed up inside each flower so that his bottom peeped out, and his droning sound was muffled, and then he’d slowly creep back out with a louder hum, and powdered wings. From flower to flower, he went, I watching him for hours, and I reckoned I was richer for that wandering bee than a fistful of gold could ever make me.
Poor? Not poor.’
The Boudica series, by Manda Scott
I wouldn’t say that this radically transformed my thinking, or awakened me, so much as affirming and shifting radical transformations I’d already gone through, and not so very long ago. But that’s a good enough reason for including here four books which I wholeheartedly recommend that you read. The four-volume Boudica series (Boudica: Dreaming the Eagle; Boudica: Dreaming the Bull; Boudica: Dreaming the Hound, and Boudica: Dreaming the Serpent Spear) is included here not because of the accurately researched story of Boudica herself, fascinating and strong female character though she clearly is, but because of Scott’s imaginative depiction of what our ancestors’ belief systems may have been, and how they might have lived according to those systems. In Scott’s vision of early Britain, her ‘dreamers’ are more than simply the equivalent of ‘druids’ or ‘shamans’. They are scouts and trackers for the warriors, mediating between the living and the ancestors. They fly with the birds, and run with the hound or the deer. When they pass on, they speak to us, across time. Scott is a careful researcher and a brilliant storyteller; but more than that, with these books she offers us a glimpse into what we might once have been, and might some day become again.