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Old-fashioned 70's Feminist Misandry
on 17 December 2006
There is plenty to admire in this book, which is why awarding it only one star wouldn't have felt right. I did not found the main characters convincing or `alive', there is no wit or irony in the book, and the story as a whole doesn't gel. But Smiley is a hard-working writer, and there is a wealth of detail about farming and farming techniques (presumably the result of detailed research) which feels educational. You come away feeling that you've learned something.
Also, although it suffers from many of the weaknesses of contemporary novels (especially the feeling that the whole is less than the sum of its parts) there is a passion which burns at the core of this book so you do feel that it is at least about something. It was apparently born out of a feminist desire to rewrite King Lear (sort of) from the point of view of the daughters. The daughters point of view, it transpires, is that of man-hating 70's feminists. Their world is one in which men are generally vile, sly and treacherous. There are only so many evil acts that you can pile onto the shoulders of the poor males, without turning the book into a melodrama (an ever-present threat); so Smiley has to work hard to convey their blanket wickedness by tone and atmosphere, and sometimes she struggles. When Harold, a neighbour, is blinded in a horrific accident, for example, and one of the daughters compares him to Hitler and says that he deserves no pity, the other daughter effectively poses the question - and you can't help feeling that she is articulating the very question that Smiley must have been asking herself, seated at the keyboard at this point - exactly what he has done that has put him so far beyond the pale. She resolves this little problem by coming up with an anecdote about how years earlier he apparently deliberately drove over a fawn on his cornpicker, and then callously left it to die - not so much melodrama as Disney.
Throughout the book, you never have a clue what the characters will do next, and this is mainly because they aren't credible personalities. Their dialogue is usually done well, but their actions aren't convincing. Yes some fathers abuse their children. But I wasn't at all persuaded that such men are remotely like the characters in this book.
Smiley's strength is in the externals, and in the detail - but she often overdoes even that. There are an awful lot of lists. A character can't open a medicine cabinet without Smiley listing every single thing inside it.
Smiley is described in the blurb at the back of the book as a `militant liberal'. She describes herself as a `nice person'. And yet ethically this is a dodgy book. We would know exactly what to think of it if the target were homosexuals, Jews, women, Muslims, etc. It is to be hoped that a future, more enlightened generation will also know what to think of a book that treats men as this one does.