REVIEW: I Who Have Never Known Men, Jacqueline Harpman

Thursday, 12 September 2019

Deep underground, thirty-nine women live imprisoned in a cage. Watched over by guards, the women have no memory of how they got there, no notion of time, and only vague recollection of their lives before. As the burn of electric light merges day into night and numberless years pass, a young girl - the fortieth prisoner - sits alone and outcast in the corner. Soon she will show herself to be the key to the others' escape and survival in the strange world that awaits them above ground.

I Who Have Never Known Men is a lesson in futility; in relentless disappointments; in the reality that, no matter how much modern depictions have tried to tell us otherwise, most dystopias do not have a happy ending. In fact, even compared to most older dystopias, the book is nothing like I have read before, or will probably ever read again. It is jarring, disquieting, and profoundly saddening, made only more so because the real horrors of the novel do not come from the petty, cruel actions of a particular group of people - whether that be a certain race, class, gender or governmental organisation. Instead, they stem from the horrifying reality of these women’s lives after the ‘ruling class’ have left them behind; their aimless wanderings, their desire to find anything that resembles human civilisation (kind or otherwise) and their constant failure to do so, is where the growing terror creeps in.
After-all, at least you can fight back against tangible, physical monsters, human or otherwise. You can not fight yourself out of a situation when the reality of it is, is that there is absolutely nothing to fight against.
Nothing holding you down, nothing enforcing the rules.
Absolutely nothing at all.
In those scenes, I Who Have Never Known Men becomes, much like Toni Morrison’s seminal novel Beloved, an unending, spiralling tale of suffering and disappointments; a slow and dreary wind-down to an utterly empty and horrifying conclusion. It is a disturbingly haunting tale, not one to be recommended if someone is looking for something leaning towards the light and fluffy, or having a bad day mental health-wise. But one to be recommended for people who have growing questions and concerns about the environmental crisis… or rather, people who have no questions or concerns whatsoever, in an effort of shocking them into reality. Because, even though Jacqueline Harpman published this novel in 1995, as most dystopian novels have the tendency to do, more and more lessons from its pages need to be taken onboard.

Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for sending me a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

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