A must read feminist dystopian novel about the power of books
A few weeks ago I shared my first blog on feminist dystopian fiction, which you can read here. This week I’m dedicating a post to a recent release which, in my humble opinion, will be joining that pantheon of superb speculative fiction. That book is Widow Land.
Chances are that you might have seen this one on Instagram, Twitter and TikTok. It seems to have been one of those books which has really captured readers’ attention in that way which dystopian and speculative fiction can sometimes do. Perhaps because it is brilliantly imaginative, or that it speaks to our current times, or a little of both those things.
With Widow Land, C J Carey reimagines 50s England. In many ways it feels familiar. There is excitement over a royal wedding and coronation, the streets of London are covered in a fine drizzle and people obsess over film stars. However, the capital to which the reader is transported differs greatly from our own. This is a world in which the British, who lost the second world war, have formed an alliance with the Nazi regime. Women have become second class citizens, subjugated and classified according to their characteristics.
Our heroine Rose Ransom is a Gelis, the highest classification of women, which entitles her to some freedoms. It also means that she had a privileged job in the Ministry of Culture, where she rewrites classic literature to correct the views of the past. Predominantly she finds herself rewriting the stories of women.
By rewriting literature the regime looks to shape history.
Now Rose has a new mission. In the year of the Coronation – but not the Coronation of Elizabeth II – she must infiltrate the Widowlands to find out if the Fredas (widows) are responsible for acts of subversion which have been cropping up across the country with increasing frequency. The inhabitants of the slums like Widowlands are unmarried, middle-aged women who may be liable to incite revolution. And Rose, who is committing some transgressions of her own, is left to quash the rebellion. However, will she do it?
Carey does an incredible job of imagining this dystopian post war world. From the details of the clothes the women wear (in one scene the clothing starved women use cardboard to make their skirts of their dresses fan out) to the imaginative nicknames for the different classes of women. London and Oxford, the two main locations in the book, are familiar if distorted. The world building is faultless. I found myself completely immersed in the alternative history that Carey had created.
The whole novel is excellently paced. Each chapter leaves you with the breath caught in your throat. The uncanny realness of the world, the sense that things have been jolted just out of alignment, is compelling.
The real power of this novel though is in Rose’s work. She is responsible for editing subversive texts. The list of works she must “correct” include some of my personal favourites Frankenstein, Little Women, Pride and Prejudice and, of course, Jane Eyre.
Rose deletes whole scenes, rewrites endings, seeking to remove the power and influence from these texts. Jane must become less passionate, Lizzie Bennet does not marry above her station and poor Jo in little women disappears to nothing.
The notion that a woman could do this, could look to hem in those incredible authors and their heroines whilst they tried to break boundaries, well – it made me bristle with anger.
But of course this makes sense. Literature has always acted as a mirror to the society which creates it. Literature has always allowed authors, and readers, to ask questions and push for change. For women novels have been escapism, but they have also been a means of discovering more about themselves, and to allow them to aspire to greater things.
Were there issues with the novel? I am afraid there was one, rather large one, in my opinion. Whilst the Nazi’s were never glorified, their terrible acts, particularly against Jews, are only eluded too. And whilst it is highly likely that our heroine would not have any idea about the shocking crimes committed by the regime, thanks to the propaganda machine they operated, I felt Carey could have acknowledged it. Instead it seems we must be most angry at their treatment of women. That being said, Rose does notice that those who are of different races are more likely to be relegated to the lower classes.
This was very much my only criticism and perhaps a personal one. I would still absolutely encourage you to pick up this fantastic piece of feminist dystopian fiction.
Next week on the blog I’ll be speaking about some speculative fiction I hope to read in the near future.