Fabulous females with big feet


Fabulous females with big feet

DEBORAH STEINMAIR visited Belfast, 15th century China and London on the wings of books.


I READ three books with one thing in common: the main characters and first-person narrators are women.

This lovely, lyrical book is the debut of a young Irish writer, 30 years old. It's the kind of book my friend Louis likes: not much happens, it's more about the narrator's unconventional view of the world. She is young and bored, lost at sea. Her best friend has died — we only learn later in what manner — and the way she mourns is to deny the pain.

She and her friends in Belfast hang out almost every evening, always drink too much, regularly take party drugs and stumble through the days. It sounds alienating, but underneath everything lingers a tenderness, a heart.

Colin Barrett puts it excellently on the back cover: “Wry and compassionate … Connolly captures both the intoxicating chaos and restlessness of young adulthood."

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The narrator, Erin, has a complex, subversive consciousness. She is detached from everything and everyone, like someone who doesn't know she's mourning. Her mother went through the Troubles, lost a brother, and is a deeply damaged being who doesn't know how to show affection, who always takes out her anger and bitterness on her child. Their relationship is a prickly pear fence.

Erin has drunken alliances with the wrong men and takes painkillers in the morning to keep her hangover at bay. She is witty and doesn't hold back. Everything feels directionless and futile, but beneath the self-medicated numbness beats her heart, and that's what makes the book pulsate. And the aching loss. You hold your heart for the hurting child, and you read to wallow in the language: fresh and casually poetic.

But I was running towards something too. I don’t know if it was a time I was trying to get back to, or a person, or a feeling I don’t have the word for, and maybe don’t even know how to feel. Whatever it was might not exist, or might be something that would always have been on the periphery of my reality, unreachable, like a flash of something you see out of the corner of your eye that looks different when you turn to face it, or how sometimes you hear a few seconds of a certain song and it seems like you’re about to feel some way you’d forgotten how to be, and then in the next few seconds that sense disappears, and no matter how many times you listen to it again it’s always the edge of the feeling that you have rather than the feeling itself.

Such is the book: evocative like a tune that lingers, or a few seconds of a tune that haunts. With a subversive logic like a dream.

The second book is set in China in 1449. The narrator is Tan Yunxian, eight years old. Her mother lost the will to live after her sons died of smallpox. She no longer tends to her bound feet daily (a messy, foul-smelling, painful affair) and dies of sepsis.

Now Tan and her father's primary concubine, Miss Zhao, are sent to her father's parents in another province. They are wealthy and highly educated. Her grandparents are both doctors; they studied for a long time but don't treat patients themselves; it's beneath their standing to come into contact with blood. They are more like pharmacists and diagnosticians. They brew all sorts of decoctions from plants and flowers.

Tan becomes friends with the midwife's daughter, Shi Meiling. They are the same age but Shi is from the working class, with large, unbound feet. She is incredibly beautiful, and Tan teaches her to read and write.

Women of a certain status are the property of men and almost never allowed to leave the lush grounds of the compound. They live in luxury and beauty, stumbling and hobbling on tiny feet at the end of slender legs with atrophied calf muscles. If you were to push them, they would fall over. This helplessness softens their men and stirs their “essence" (semen).

At 15, Tan is sent to the settlement of the man she is betrothed to. She departs with an entourage, her mother's jewels and a mountain of gifts from her new in-laws. Her husband is 16 years old with a perfect moon face, and their marital affairs progress smoothly but she doesn't get pregnant. A woman's duty is to bear her husband's sons, a fact her mother-in-law never lets her forget.

She had been an apprentice of her grandparents for years and is a skilled physician who, of course, cannot practise. However, she begins to treat women and children in the extended household and succeeds in getting her friend Shi appointed as a midwife. Now they enjoy each other's company again. Her husband is a perpetual student who is mostly away in foreign parts, studying.

So we follow her through the years, get to know the traditions and rituals, and always, as everywhere, the cunning malice of the human heart; jealousies and conspirators abound. Tan and Shi end up in the emperor's court to assist with the empress's childbirth.

Sweet and sour overtake them, like yin and yang always contending for balance. It's a book that overwhelms and enchants you. Ultimately, it's about the power of women tirelessly chipping away at the patriarchy. And the meaning of friendship. I couldn't put it down.

And I realise: the men you read about today who kidnap a woman, keep her in the basement, impregnate her, and hold her and her children captive while they have all the power, even over life and death, are simply a genetic throwback to previous centuries when women and children were possessions and the man was lord and king.

This book was a guilty pleasure, perfect for devouring late into the night. From the first page, the storyline grabs you and doesn't let go. Jack (Jacinta) and her husband Gabe are penetration specialists — they break into businesses to test how impenetrable their security systems are. Gabe is also a cyber-hacker who spent time in prison as a youth and uses his skills to test the companies' cyber-security.

Jack is fit, strong, quick-witted and intuitive. When she returns home after a night of infiltration, she finds Gabe murdered in front of his computer: his throat has been slit and his hard drive has been stolen. It looks like a contract killing, and of course she's the prime suspect. With her mad skills, she escapes custody because she has to track down Gabe's killers and make them pay. Now both the perpetrators and the police are on her trail.

There's one person who's on her side: her sister, who is also her best friend. Besides her, she's alone in the world. You can't flip the pages fast enough.

The three books have one thing in common: the power of female friendships.

Who, what, where and how much?

Lazy City by Rachel Connolly was published by Canongate Books and costs R410 at Loot.

Lady Tan's Circle of Women by Lisa See was published by Simon & Schuster and costs R423 at Exclusive Books.

Zero Days by Ruth Ware was published by Simon & Schuster and costs R423 at Exclusive Books

What are we listening to?

Emandal Chorale sings You Strike a Woman, You Strike a Rock.

♦ VWB ♦

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