Here are six titles that everyone — regardless of gender — should read this International Women’s Day.
The after-effects of #MeToo are still very much being felt — and that’s being thoroughly reflected in contemporary fiction. The differing perspectives can simultaneously enrage and soothe, but — most importantly — they help us process what has been. Below, Jennifer McShane recommends six titles that are essential reading.
Anna Burns’ Milkman
Immersive. That was only one of the praises heaped on this, the winner of the prestigious Man Booker Prize 2018. Author Anna Burns is the first in Northern Irish writer to win the literary honour for her telling the story of our protagonist; an unnamed 18-year-old girl, who we know only as ‘Middle Sister,’ being pursued by a much older and, as it so happens, menacing, paramilitary figure, the milkman.
It’s a tome that disturbs, but it’s extremely vivid and highly original. It challenges the reader. Timely and relevant, the Troubles-set novel about a young woman being sexually harassed by a powerful man has never felt more potent.
Naomi Alderman’s The Power
Could you imagine a world where gender stereotyping was flipped on its head? A world where women were the persons who totally run the show? This is the concept author Naomi Alderman explores in her intriguing novel The Power. Alderman worked with – and was mentored by – the great Margaret Atwood a year before this release and it shows. Like Atwood, she has created a unique dystopia; a universe in which teenage girls discover they develop a ‘skein’ – a muscle in their chest which then means have the ability to electrocute men at will – and they use it to their advantage; suddenly they are physically stronger than men.
There are many role reversals throughout the novel, but what jumps out is that even the secretaries are male, and referred to only as ‘he’ for the most part. It’s not meant to be sexist or derogatory; it’s just the way it’s always been? or has it? This story is a fascinating look at what the world might be like if sexism went the other way. It will unnerve you, stay with you and after winning the esteemed Baileys Prize for Women’s Fiction will become a classic.
Louise Erdrich’s Future Home of the Living God
In Louise Erdrich’s chilling Future Home of the Living God, she presents an unsettling look at a dystopian universe set in Minnesota. Everything has gone awry. Evolution has been reversed; the world is going backwards as woman after woman gives birth to infants that appear superior to the human species in every way. The future of mankind is threatened and it isn’t long before pregnant women are being rounded up and incarcerated against their will. Much of the novel takes the form of a diary by pregnant Cedar Hawk Songmaker addressed to her unborn child. Her ordeal is harrowing yet she is courageous. It’s a startling new work of fiction; a feverish cautionary tale that is hugely relevant. This one you won’t put down.
Susan Choi’s Trust Exercise
In their first term at a competitive performing arts high school, two students, Sarah and David, fall deeply in love. Their experience is heightened, thanks to Mr Kingsley, their magnetic and manipulative drama instructor. But, decades on, it turns out it wasn’t as idyllic as they’d been led to believe. As adults, they must come to terms with the reality that was darker than they might have ever imagined.
Sarah Henstra’s The Red Word
The Red Word by Sarah Henstra (Tramp Press, approx. €14.99, out now) is the authors first adult outing. Set in the mid-nineties, she uses a poignant setting of an Ivy League college campus to examine cultural mythology and how it might imbue our daily behaviour. Canadian student Karen becomes embroiled with members of a sorority-bashing, fraternity-loathing feminist group while living in an off-campus house, nicknamed Raghurst. To stand out, she dates Mike, a member of a notorious fraternity, Gemma Beta Chi.
Word gets out that fellow fraternity member, Bruce Comfort has gotten a girl pregnant and refuses to accept responsibility, so the Raghurst ringleader Dyann decides to drug or ‘roofie’ the entire fraternity at a party. But after a woman ends up gang-raped after accidentally consuming the drug, rumours spread on campus like wildfire over what exactly happened – and who committed the horrific assault. Henstra expertly uses Greek myths to explore sexuality, debauchery, power dynamics and misogyny with sensitive and sharp writing – and a keen understanding of what is an extremely complex subject matter. Powerful.
Rosie Price’s What Red Was
Kate leaves her modest upbringing in rural Gloucestershire for university. There she meets charismatic Max Rippon, who’s from a privileged background. Slowly, she’s drawn into the Rippon family’s world, becoming close to Max’s mother, Zara, a successful film director. Her world changes when she is sexually assaulted by someone close to home and finds herself trapped, trying to deal with the trauma. A powerful look at the ripple effects of assault.