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FICTION: WOMEN ON THE VERGE

January 07, 2018

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I struggle to find books about feminism that I can actually enjoy. This is not to say that I don’t enjoy the occasional amble-through-history book to learn what all has repressed/suppressed/depressed women, or the not-so-occasional rant from militant feminists that I have come to be wary of. There is a whole idiom of rapidly growing feminism that takes existing vocabulary and subverts it, sometimes subtly and at other times to create a whole new idiom — it’s amazing, but exhausting.

The news more often than not shows heartbreaking instances of women being taken down, of female successes turned into vilifications, of strong female figures denigrated to the point where it makes you wonder if there’s any point at all of the struggle any regular woman faces everyday to be stronger, better or happier. And what is a perfect woman anyway?

How can we, as women, please not only the men of the world, but also — and this answer is harder — the women? In this problematic space, Dawn O’Porter’s The Cows: Don’t Follow the Herd bursts forth in a candid portrayal of three modern women unapologetically beating their own path, making mistakes like any regular person and rising better and stronger from those mistakes with sheer force of will. The book is generous and forgiving, brimming with optimism and laughter. It reminds readers, especially female, that even the worst catastrophes can be dealt with through courage, humour and a strong sense of self. 

A candid and unapologetically feminist novel about three modern women offers humour and serious inspiration

The book follows about three weeks in the lives of three women between the ages of 29 and 42, living in London. Tara, the oldest of the lot (but sounding surprisingly like the youngest in her narration), has a six-year-old daughter, Annie, resulting from a one-night stand and who she has since raised on her own. Tara is a successful documentary filmmaker, a great mum and her only regret is not finding a good father for her daughter. Camilla — Cam — is an extremely successful blogger whose alternate views about women and forthright tone have won her the love of millions of supporters. She is also fast becoming known as the Face of Childless Women, an accolade that she endorses enthusiastically. She is single, rich from her blog and very happy to maintain this status quo. Stella is in a dead relationship and carries a gene that gives her an extremely high probability of cancer which has already killed her twin sister and mother. Her only chance of survival is surgery that will remove her breasts, her ovaries, and every possibility of ever having a child. Only, Stella desperately wants children. 

These three women become connected first loosely, and then very closely, after a shocking incident: Tara, finding herself alone on the train, decides to give in to her impulse and indulges in onanism. This is caught on film without her knowledge or permission and leaked online, making her the most vilified woman in the country within 24 hours. Her life is completely thrown: she’s fired from her job, abandoned by her friends and labelled Wank Woman, a public joke. She has a panic attack, locks herself in her home for weeks and suffers the worst consequences that digital-age policing can offer, all because she gave in to a momentary lapse of judgement and embraced her sexual needs at a time when she thought she was alone. This is just one of the themes explored in the book, in which O’Porter brings to life a thousand different issues women face every day, from the mundane (workplace sexism) to the one-off (filmed while pleasuring herself). 

Exploring so many different scenarios that challenge women has both pros and cons. As a woman, I am drawn to the pros because the situations resonate, and the efforts of the protagonists and other peripheral characters to work through these situations are inspiring and realistic. As a reviewer, the cons are more prominent — it is too much. There is far too much packed into one novel, from voluntary childlessness, the inability to have children, motherhood, working mums versus non-working mums, to casual sex, workplace sexism, female solidarity, female sexuality and more, all frantically highlighted one after the other. 

Having said that, the novel still manages this feat with such a lightness of tone that it never feels burdensome. The complexities are respected and never dumbed down. For instance, Cam is depicted as a very strong online presence; someone who knows her mind and speaks it fearlessly, and it is her self-confidence that allows her to say controversial things and still have so much support. On the other hand, she acknowledges that in person she is socially awkward and wouldn’t be able to say half as much as she does online. Her strength, then, is her online presence, and that’s okay. As long as she stays true to who she says she is — and she does — it doesn’t matter if she has personal weaknesses. She is trolled endlessly as expected, but what is important here is to be fearless as a woman (not foolhardy, mind), and that’s what O’Porter will have the reader take away.

“... you do all realise that some of the most brilliant women in the world don’t have kids, right? Oprah, Gloria Steinem, Helen Mirren, Dolly Parton? Do you think their lives carry an air of tragedy because they never had children? I don’t. ... I think it’s important we take the lead from our heroes and for everyone to stop valuing women on whether they do, or do not, become mothers.” — Excerpt from the book

Similarly, with Tara who is criticised for not telling the father of her child when she became pregnant, the reader is shown that it was, in fact, the right decision for Tara the individual and as women we need to trust our own instincts and not follow the herd. Stella’s downward spiral is shown as a mental health issue, but one that she doesn’t acknowledge in her crazy quarry of a baby. For her, tricking her boss into impregnating her and then disappearing with the baby is “getting what she wants, as a woman.” This is mental, we all know it, but for Stella, this is empowerment and drives her forward. Thankfully, this plan doesn’t come to fruition, but the point is that while the book has its unrealistic moments and fluffy highs, it is on the whole sensible writing. It doesn’t put women up on a pedestal and treat them as hapless victims, nor does it big them up into all-conquering superheroes either.

Really defying all my expectations, the novel doesn’t hate men. In fact, it feels like O’Porter knows some pretty decent men. Apart from one impossibly dreamy character who I admit to quite being in love with and who I suspect is there for that very reason, all kinds of men speak in the novel. Good, family men; old-school types who defy expectation and stand by their controversial daughters; young lovers who also defy expectation and stand by the woman they love despite being emotionally rejected by them, and workplace terrors who do not defy any expectation and are actually terrible. As it turns out, it’s not men who are so much the villains in this book; it is women. As Cam says to another woman, “The irony of yours and your listeners’ opinions is that it is you boxing women into these roles, not men. It’s highly un-feminist of you.”

Read this book for a laugh, and then read it again for some serious inspiration. It will not disappoint.

The reviewer is a Lahore-based freelance writer

The Cows: Don’t Follow
the Herd
By Dawn O’Porter
HarperCollins, US
ISBN: 978-0008126032
400pp.

Published in Dawn, EOS, January 7th, 2017