Femlandia by Christina Dalcher
Happy April (by the skin of my teeth). We've done utopia, here's a dystopia... in more ways than one.
Prepare to witness just how confused I was in the process of reading this novel, ladies and gents. And if, as I suspect, confused authors write confusing content then boy, prepare to be real discombobulated after reading this review. Dalcher must have been in two minds about what this project was and who this project was for. After reading the acknowledgements and the introductory quotes recently, I'm starting to see where this novel came from. And it isn't good.
To briefly summarise the plot, Miranda and her daughter Emma find themselves high and dry in the aftermath of a devastating economic collapse, sending their immediate society into disarray, rendering them homeless and turning Miranda's morally-dubious husband to suicide. Miranda is the unwilling daughter of a famous feminist and founder of women-only colony Femlandia, and eventually she decides it is the last place she can turn to for safety.
I'm a little sad to be doing a negative review. I'd rather this blog's focus be to celebrate books in all their serotonin-generating greatness. But frankly, this book did the opposite of that. I'll start with a strong point to settle my conscience. The novel's opening was exciting; it begins so deliciously as dystopia, with some really punchy things to say about the downfall of their society and their surroundings. It was clean and immersive and I had so many questions about the 'outside world' and what further consequences would be seen...
'"It's really gone isn't it?" she says. I don't know whether she's talking about our stuff, the house, or the world outside. In any case, she's right.'
The strongest and most interesting part of the novel is sort of left at the door and not explored again.
The mistake I made was falling for its heavy marketing as a feminist novel, with 'join the sisterhood' plastered on the front cover, and 'author of VOX' above it - which was definitely feminist. So reading some unusual dialogue from the protagonist on her feminist mother at the beginning registered to me as something new. I thought finallyyy. I'm glad this author is going to treat the topic as the huge spectrum of nuance that it is, to be examined and picked apart. Feminism doesn't come in one shape - and some of those shapes could be questionable.
Miranda's inner dialogue reveals some odd oversimplifications about feminism from the offset, but she doesn't toy back and forth with it or wrestle with her thoughts nearly enough. No. Her views are essentially doubled down and legitimised and the novel in general, whilst leaning away from the dystopia outside and into the 'dystopia' inside the feminist colony, STILL does not really show a development in its stances on feminism. I thought Miranda would go on a big psychological journey, question herself and the over-simplistic things she was saying. It's safe to say that in the whole novel, Miranda's views are never really earnestly challenged or examined and it's hugely disappointing at best, a big red flag at worst ...
'Femlandia. Nick, back from the kitchen with a craft beer he said was a steal at six bucks a bottle, translated it in his own way. "Freaks. Welcome to Camp Dyke-orama!" "Nick. Really?" I said. But I laughed along with him.'
The quote above was the point in the novel where I was fully convinced that Miranda's character was about to be criticised and for the novel to turn on its head - because the alternative was ... ugly. It didn't happen.
What is essentially a ‘not all men’ rhetoric is really just it, finished, shoved down your throat repeatedly over and over again. Except, in the subtext of the novel you'll also find conflicting messages like men do bad things, but all change is bad (femlandia exploits men and women continue suffering) and men are animals (the description of the men swarming on Emma), but also human beings.
The book is entirely made up of odd comparisons and warped representation of real-life sex and gender issues. A moment which raised a red flag was Emma’s discussion with Miranda about how she got pregnant. Emma explains that her boyfriend misled her by assuring her she won’t get pregnant due to the stage in her menstrual cycle, coerced her into sex that she wasn’t comfortable with and so, raped her. The author craftily sets up this scenario. Miranda is up in arms on the particulars …
‘Christ. A thousand hideous scenarios flash through my mind. Emma at college, putting the wrong kind of slant on a professor’s comment, finding coercion and abuse in his innocent offer to walk her through a calculus problem. Emma at her first job, spinning an argument with a co-worker into a harassment allegation.’
Due to the skewing of the language in this conversation, Miranda is given the facilities to cry, “it’s both your responsibilities!” and some sort of murky point is made about how men suffer from false allegations? It’s calculating and misrepresentative. The writing comes across like a tabloid newspaper creating lazy alternate circumstances to shame a victim. What on earth is going on here? What is the point? Why is there no attempt to contextualise, no empathy, no part where perhaps Miranda explains she just wants her to understand these issues better?
If this is an examination of the nuances of feminism, the good and the bad, then why is no attempt made to distinguish between the two. Ever. Femlandia’s presentation as a cult where women are abused through a kind of therapy, means that therapy is sort of tied in with the same brush as… abusive manipulation. The entry rules of the colony (women are searched upon entry to check that they were “always a woman”) are sort of unquestioned. No passionate quip from Miranda this time. Kate’s TERF speech (“I’m talking about what they are. Not what they think they are or what they want to be. It’s a slippery slope.”) is just… not discussed at all. It’s lazy and also just plain strange.
I was really unsure who this book was aimed at, what its overall message was and why this book exists. Until I read the acknowledgements. She explains that the fans of VOX, their 'loathing of toxic masculinity' and their 'misandrist death threats' inspired her to write this tale. The author obviously reacted badly to the fans who associated themselves with her book; I started to imagine her writing this whole novel seething and through gritted teeth, hoping to ward off all the horrid ‘feminazis’. It checks out.
I think you can see overall that I’m not this book’s biggest fan. Other than the messages of the book being wishy-washy and a little harmful, the many characters we encounter are one-dimensional (particularly Emma who seems to go full-send masochist on her own mother), unexplored, and interesting parts of their stories are left out. What happened to Emma as she was being indoctrinated? I wanted to see much more of what was happening inside the minds of the inhabitants of Femlandia.
I’ll say if you’re into dystopia, read books for their rich characters, or are sensitive to car-crash representations of feminism, probably give this one a miss.