9th Jan 2012
My Three Favourite… To-Hell-and-Back Women
January, quite frankly, can do one. It’s the month of bleak weather, the highest suicide rate, and eleven whole months until that magical Christmassy feeling creeps back around. At times like these, we need strength. Strength and catharsis.
These three books provide both in abundance. I’m not saying they’ll make you feel better – the subject matter for all three is grim at the best of times – but they’ll at least show you it’s possible to overcome far scarier things than the first thirty-one days of the year.
Elaine Risley in Cat’s Eye by Margaret Atwood
This site is no stranger to the wonder of Margaret Atwood‘s writing, but I have to admit I only read this book for the first time last month. It opened my eyes: Atwood paints a disturbingly vivid picture of the inside of a little girl’s head as she suffers the torment of her childhood friends and their families, and shows how this abuse slinks throughout the various aspects of the rest of her life.
At its most literal level, the abuse the central character Elaine suffers becomes her living: it forms the subject matter for the paintings which she not only makes a career from but which also earn her enough acclaim for a retrospective exhibition, the event of which is the fitting setting for the present-day portion of the book.
At points, the childhood Elaine’s sense of helplessness is terrifyingly dark and brutally real, and it becomes surprisingly easy to forget that this is not an autobiography but a piece of fiction.
For me, one of the most impressive elements is the way the book highlights the inevitability of different aspects of our past forming part of our future selves, and this in turn forced me to consider my own psychology in a deeper way than any other book I’ve read. Pretty powerful stuff.
Alice Sebold in Lucky
When you say ‘Alice Sebold’, most people think of The Lovely Bones. I can’t blame them, it’s an astonishingly good book, but for me it was just the read that led to the even greater discovery of Lucky: the heart-wrenching memoir detailing her horrific rape and its aftermath as she sacrifices so much of her own wellbeing to try to achieve the conviction of her rapist.
The rape itself is described in harrowing detail (I was genuinely sickened by Alice’s ordeal and spent days afterwards terrified of going outside), but it is everything that comes afterwards that makes this book truly remarkable.
While the ‘hell’ is shocking, it really is the ‘and back’ part that secures this book a firm place in the genre of reads that will probably change your view of the world: Sebold doesn’t self-pity, but instead throughout the book clearly holds in mind the vast numbers of women with similar experiences, as you cannot fail to finish this story without becoming incensed at how excruciatingly difficult it is to find justice after rape, and wanting to do something to change this.
There is by no means a happy ending, but I like to think the book itself forms part of the recovery process: Sebold herself admitted she wrote the book to try to stop the word ‘rape’ being a taboo, and says, inspirationally: ‘no one work is going to accomplish the years of work that need to be done, but it can help.’ This is one of those rare books I just wish everyone would read.
Helen Zenna Smith in Not So Quiet
I have many things to thank my A-Level English teacher for, but above all else the following: teaching me the word ‘phallic’, telling me a hugely entertaining story about Horlicks, and introducing me to this book.
Most people have read at least some of the amazingly poignant literature to come out of the First World War (one of the most famous of which being All Quiet on the Western Front, the book on which this novel is loosely based) but very few portray the true horrors of the female suffering, and fewer still tell the story of how women too risked their lives in France.
This semi-autobiographical read details the lives of a convoy of female ambulance drivers whose job was to collect casualties from the Front. The harsh conditions in which they are forced to work are made worse by the fact that their families treat them as little ‘doing our bit’ trophies, rather than frightened girls who just want to go home. Instead, they tough it out, becoming bitter, hardened and in some cases utterly insane as a result of the scenes and broken men they have to witness.
Unlike the other two novels, Not So Quiet does not have an ‘and back’ to counteract the ‘to hell’ part for most of its characters, but there’s something about the pockets of strength these women find in places that makes this book a source of inspiration regardless.
One particular scene in which Helen copes with the horrors she must face by imagining giving her blissfully ignorant mother a ‘tour’ of the ambulances and their gruesome contents is so biting that you can almost feel the words being spat onto the page.
These women’s experiences and struggles were continually stifled until they exploded into pieces of writing like this, and I try and re-read this every time I’m feeling hard done by; basically, to force myself to (wo)man up.
Who are your favourite to-hell-and-back women? Tell us their stories in the comments.