Fiction provides a unique lens to explore the gendered nature of power, relationships and of literature itself. Indeed, female narratives have traditionally been side-lined. We are all too familiar with character development being devoted entirely to complex male figures, at the expense of any move beyond the basic archetypes of the female victim or femme fatale. Each of this week’s recommendations demonstrate that female voices are far more nuanced and diverse than fiction has traditionally led us to believe.
From Greek myth to dystopia to political fiction, these novels subvert what have been typically viewed as ‘masculine’ genres to prove that female narratives cannot be filed into a single category. Storytelling, when it amplifies diverse female voices and embraces the full complexity of what it means to be a woman, acts as a powerful gesture against the silence of his-story.
Circe by Madeline Miller
Eve, books editor
A feminist take on Greek mythology, Madeline Miller tells the story of Circe, the immortal nymph known solely for her role in transforming Odysseus’ sailors into pigs in Homer’s Odyssey. Miller puts the side-lined heroine centre stage: demonstrating that female narratives are far more complex than storytelling often leads us to believe. Circe realises early on that her role in life is to cater for the men around her, “Brides, nymphs were called, but that is not really how the world saw us. We were an endless feast laid out upon a table.” Subverting the expectations of a hero-dominated society; Circe succeeds in carving out her own tale. The result is a powerful exploration of the gendered nature of power and the mistrust that influential women have inspired throughout history.
Circe may well be ‘just’ a myth, but Miller provides very real insights into the relationships and obstacles women will encounter in their lives. From defending herself against the men that seek to bend her to their will, navigating single motherhood and finding solace in love, “he showed me his scars and in return let me pretend that I had none,” Circe is a celebration of the tenacity of the female spirit.
Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys
Cora, books editor
Jane Eyre is always sure to whip up a debate in feminist communities. Some regard Brontë’s protagonist as a bad-ass, proto-feminist heroine; citing extraordinary passages like when Jane reminds Mr Rochester: “I am no bird; and no net ensnares me: I am a free human being with an independent will.” Others consider (spoiler alert) Jane’s dutiful acceptance of an emotionally abusive man as a regressive statement on Brontë’s part.
But Wide Sargasso Sea – Jean Rhys’ stunning retelling of Jane Eyre – leaves no ambiguity as to the villainy of Mr Rochester in contrast to the humanity of the women that surround him. Set in the West Indies in the early 1800s, Rhys puts Mr Rochester’s first wife (AKA Bertha Mason, the ‘madwoman in the attic’) at the foreground of her novel, which explores the power dynamics of gender and race in a way that is both historically fastidious and wonderfully imaginative. The story of Rochester’s neglected wife is a terrifying and tragic indictment of the patriarchal society that has followed us through history. If you’re looking for a book to make your blood boil, or if Bertha Mason’s representation in Jane Eyre left you craving some (any!) character development, then Wide Sargasso Sea is an absolute must-read.
Little Women by Louise May Alcott
Devanshika, deputy books editor
Googling ‘Is Little Women feminist’ leads to three extremely contradictory top search results that conclude the novel either ‘has a real feminist problem, ‘is not a feminist novel’ or that ‘yes, it is a feminist novel’. I, obviously, fall into the third camp. Perhaps this is nostalgic; Little Women was a book given to me by my mother as one of her own childhood favourites. A Vulture article– which “regrets to inform” us that the novel isn’t feminist– claims that many “readers aren’t remembering Little Women the book at all, but rather Little Women the feeling”. In response, I’d like to ask what’s so wrong with reading a book just for the warm, fuzzy feeling it gives you on the inside? Besides, I promise Little Women will give you that and so much more. It isn’t exactly radical, perhaps not even semi-revolutionary in its embrace of marriage, childbearing and over-all sweetness as a part of its main characters’ personalities and story arcs. But at its core, Little Women’s message is that girls don’t need to fit into boxes; that they can be spunky, independent tomboys; snobbish girly-girls and more, without fully conforming to one gendered stereotype. If you ask me, that’s pretty feminist.
Queenie by Candice Carty-Williams
Eve, books editor
An accessible political fiction, Queenie explores what it means to be a young, black British woman navigating the complexities of love, sex and female friendships. A flawed and relatable narrator, Queenie’s search for her own self-identity against the crippling forces of casual racism and sexism is both deeply unsettling and darkly comic. The brilliance of Carty-Williams’ writing is in the way she uses humour to provide important meditations on modern British society. From cultural stigma surrounding mental health, “if I told my mum I need counselling she’d ship me over to Kampala in a cargo barrel,” to workplace discrimination – Queenie only permitted to enter her office after directing the security guard to her own face on the company’s diversity poster – Carty-Williams shows the impact that systemic prejudice has on those who meet at the intersections of class, race and gender, “the trauma is too heavy for us to bear.” Realising sadness “can be temporarily erased by the dull thrill of attention from strangers”, Queenie’s venture into the world of dating apps provides powerful reflections on the misogyny, racial fetishing and harassment that pervade modern dating. Black female voices are multi-faceted and diverse; Queenie’s is a powerful assertion of her identity against the forces that seek to silence it.
The Power by Naomi Alderman
Cora, books editor
The Power is a chilling work of speculative fiction based upon a tantalising premise: what would happen if the traditional power structures operating between men and women were suddenly inverted? Naomi Alderman charts the dawn of this new matriarchal society, in which women all over the world wake up one day to find that they have the ability to release powerful and devastating electrical currents from their fingertips. English teen Roxy, aspiring Nigerian journalist Tunde, orphaned young Margo and middle-aged American politician Jocelyn, form the four-part narrative structure through which a terrifying vision of radical gender violence is revealed.
Alderman faced criticism from commentators who lamented her bleak depiction of a world run by women: how could women possibly inflict upon men the same forms of oppression that we have suffered for millennia? This is a book that will make you want to argue, but those who deny its feminist credentials miss the point. As Lord Acton observed: “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” If we want to create an equal world, in which no person lives in fear of violence, the answer is not simply to transfer power: we must revolutionise it.
Illustrations by Sasha LaCombe