Book Review: The Arrival of Missives

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The Arrival of Missives, by Aliya Whiteley, is set in a small West of England village in the aftermath of the Great War. The families of the village have lived here for generations, each taking an interest in their neighbours’ lives and playing the role expected of them in occupation and village life.

The protagoinist, Shirley Fearn, is the only child of an increasingly successful, landowning farmer. She has been raised to be of interest to someone who would be willing and able to take over the family farm. Shirley has other ideas. She believes herself in love with the village schoolteacher, Mr Tiller, a badly injured veteran of the war. Her ambition is to gain her own teacher’s certificate from the nearby training college in Taunton, to marry Mr Tiller and then teach by his side.

When Mr Tiller learns of her plans he shares a secret that she must never divulge. He believes that Shirley can avert a catastrophe, but to do so she must trust him and do exactly as he asks. Shirley finds herself caught up in a personal conflict between helping her idol and following her own desires.

All her life Shirley has been expected to comply with the wishes of others. Her parents will contemplate no other future for her than that of the wife of a farmer on the family land. Shirley is headstrong and articulate, yet finds her voice ignored as the men of the village make decisions regarding her future. She receives little support from her mother who has learned to cope by hiding how she feels and pandering to her husband:

“He is an enormous tyrant baby to whom she will be forever bound.”

Shirley is a fascinating character, a young woman with opinions and desires who wishes to wrest control of her life from those who are convinced they know best. She observes that men’s plans rarely consider women, yet all men are born of a woman and therefore their participation over time is required.

The village May Day celebrations bring matters to a head as Shirley exercises the small power she has been granted. In the aftermath she comes to realise that her destiny is still being controlled. She acts to thwart the plans of the men intent on dictating the course of her life. She is unwilling to submit to village expectations, to comply with their skewed demands.

I enjoyed unpicking the surreal aspects of the story which came clear by the end. The denouement is intensely satisfying.

This is just the sort of book that I enjoy reading with its complex, recognisable characters whose well intentioned prejudices still resonate. I am grateful that, through the ages, there have been women like Shirley willing to step out of line.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Unsung Stories.

Book Review: Asking For It

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Asking For It, by Louise O’Neill, takes the difficult subject of the alleged rape of a beautiful but drunk teenage girl at a party, and explores society’s reaction when the details are graphically shared in the public domain. It is a challenging read because it tackles so many issues that are rarely discussed between victims and the people they know. The subject may be debated by strangers, but close to home it causes embarrassment and discomfort. Large numbers of women have lived through such experiences but choose not to share, because this is the reaction they expect.

Emma O’Donovan is eighteen years old, beautiful and confident, loved by her family. For as long as she can remember she has been Daddy’s princess. Her mother tells her that with looks like hers she will have the world at her feet and she anticipates this shining future. At school she is surrounded by girls who admire her, whose jealousy she feeds off. Boys cannot help but look her way and she knows she could have any of them. She tests this regularly.

Emma once overheard a boy describe her as boring, a comment which still smarts. When others are lauded for any achievement, attribute or possession, she will quietly disparage. She works hard to appear kinder and more interesting than she feels; what matters is that she is noticed and admired. She is attracted to boys others want.

Emma despises her mother for the way she puts on a front for the neighbours and tries to maintain her aging looks, subduing the fear that they are alike. Mother’s passive criticism of her daughter irritates. Emma requires approbation so hides all traits that she knows would garner disapproval. Her parents believe she is a good girl, raised in a good family, and that she will behave in the way they have programmed her.

The pivotal night is a typical party until Emma loses control. Her friends blame the alcohol and leave her to it, distracted by their own dramas. The next morning Emma cannot remember what happened. Her friends are furious with her for how she behaved but she believes, if she remains strong, all will blow over and she will be forgiven. Then pictures appear on social media.

The fallout is depressingly accurate in its portrayal of how society reacts to allegations of rape. Emma was drunk and dressed in revealing clothes. She led a boy into a bedroom. In many people’s eyes she was asking for it and should not complain, the case should not be brought to court. Boys will be boys, what else did she expect?

Emma’s parents try to be supportive but cannot move beyond their own shattered illusions. They struggle with the concept of having a daughter who does not behave as they were convinced their daughter would. From basking in their child’s reflected glory they must now face a community that is blaming her for ruining the glorious futures of young men from good families such as theirs. Several of their parents were long time friends.

Emma herself has no idea how to cope and cannot talk about how she feels. She is adept at burying her true thoughts deep. All she can see in her head are the photographs. All she can hear are the comments that were posted underneath by those she considered her minions, her friends. This is a child on the cusp of adulthood, a teenager with all the difficulties and peer pressure that entails.

The judgements of others can be devastating, how much more so for a young person whose life revolved around garnering adulation. In the wider public eye she is That Girl about whom everyone now has an opinion. She is surrounded by pity and contempt.

The author wishes this book to trigger wider discussions about consent. Society continues to blame rape victims for not acting in a manner that they can approve rather than blaming the perpetrator for assuming that they have rights over someone else’s body for spurious reasons. Victims are shamed; bringing shame on one’s family is treated harshly. Sexual conquests continue to be admired.

Although written for young adults this is also an important book for parents. Emma’s experiences were harder to deal with because of her parent’s reaction, their palpable disappointment when she did not turn out to be the daughter they wanted.

Ultimately though it is society that needs to change. Sex is not shameful. Those mature enough to indulge should be mature enough to ask for consent. Giving consent is a personal choice, not one that should be frowned upon due to gender. This story raises the issues. Let’s be brave enough to discuss openly and respectfully with all.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by Annette, whose blog may be found here: Sincerely BookAngels  I am grateful for her generosity is sending it to me.

 

Women and Domestic Abuse

The prevalence of domestic abuse will never be fully known because most incidents are not reported. What tends to be officially recorded are the most serious cases: the deaths, or assaults that lead to hospitalisation. Even these are rarely deemed newsworthy. They happen, people shrug and try not to get involved. There is discomfort in asking about what goes on in the privacy of a family home. The most common response seems to be, if the situation is so bad then why does the victim not leave? The causes are rarely addressed.

It is the causes that interest me. The everyday sexism project has highlighted how so many in society view women. I doubt that any woman has been shocked by the contributions as most have lived with these attitudes for their entire lives. The benefit for me has been to see that I am not alone and to recognise that this sort of behaviour is unacceptable. I have sons. I do not wish them to grow up treating women as objects that exist for their delectation.

Another common responses when abuse of women is raised is, it also happens to men. When this is pointed out the implication is that what happens to men matters.

Statistics show that more men get murdered and beaten each year than women and the majority of these incidents are also not deemed newsworthy. However, it is my understanding that the majority of these assaults involve men attacking men. This is worth discussing but is not the issue that I am trying to explore.

Domestic abuse happens in the home, a place that should offer sanctuary. The perpetrators are family members who should be trusted to provide support. There is a spectrum of abuse, from constant verbal put downs to occasional assaults to significant violence and murder. It can happen to men but most victims of the domestic abuse cases reported are women.

In some countries and cultures this is seen as acceptable. In law, the husband is the head of the household and the women must do as they are told. Wife beating is seen as a method of control, frowned upon perhaps but rarely punished. In this country we are supposed to have moved on from such an attitude yet still too many men expect women to fulfil an approved role and will seek to punish them in some way if they do not conform.

I want to talk about women. I want to talk about how society treats women, what they are expected to put up with and how they are blamed if they become victims.

“She used to be a real looker, let herself go since the kids were born.”

“She should be grateful he provides so well for her and the kids.”

“Her house is a mess, what does she do all day?”

“I don’t blame him, she has a go at him every time he stops off for a few beers with the lads.”

“She was giving that one the eye, no wonder he flipped.”

Women are not possessions, not servants, not inferior. It is never acceptable to beat women into submission either verbally or physically when they do not conform to a societal ideal.

I have always been drawn to the intelligent which has resulted in me spending my life struggling to keep up with their wit and wisdom. There are times when I open a discussion but am incapable of doing justice to a topic that deserves a sound hearing, incapable of succinctly stating a case that would swing the debate. My inability to impress with clear and well reasoned discourse does not invalidate the point I am trying to make yet men dismiss it as female fuss and foolishness. I wonder would they treat a male friend with such obvious disdain?

“The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men should do nothing.”

Domestic abuse will continue until something is done to stop it. The recent killing of Reeva Steenkamp is a case in point. It is not a shame that a talented sportsman has risked his career, it is a shame that a women has been killed at home by her boyfriend. It is shameful that the world seems more interested in one celebrity’s rehabilitation than in considering why he and many others like him feel free to act in this way.

Yes, men have a right to expect the laws of the land to offer them protection from violent attack. So do women.

 

(Note: I reworked the original version of this opinion piece and submitted it to ReadWave where it made the front page. This is the reworked version)