‘My memory begins with my anger…’
Recently, over six pints of Guinness, each more delicious than the last, my friend and I discussed how effective an unhappy ending is. How The Empire Strikes Back is great because it ends on such a down note (shout out to Dante Hicks). Or how the Avengers movies would be a true work of art had they finished with the click of Thanos’ fingers rather than bringing everyone back from the dead for one last ride.
Real life rarely has a happy ending, and when it does, it comes at the expense of someone else’s happy ending. No. Life is hell. It’s hard, it’s either too long or too short, and there isn’t enough ice cream. I want popular culture that reflects this truism. Give me The Road or Day of the Dead. Make it bleak. Make it painful. Most of all, make it like I Who Have Never Known Men.
Following some kind of cataclysmic event on Earth, a group of 39 women and 1 child (our fearless narrator) are imprisoned in an unknown location and forbidden from touching or interacting on anything more than the most basic level of human contact. One day, for reasons that are destined to remain unknown, the guards leave, the prison doors are opened, and the women ‘escape’. It soon becomes clear, however, that the women are just as imprisoned as before.
French writer Jacqueline Harpman presents us with an unnamed protagonist who has only ever known life in a prison cell. Therefore, she is emotionally closed off (at times), infinitely logical and resourceful, and completely lacking in the nuances of human behaviour. In short, the child at the centre of I Who Have Never Known Men is utterly fascinating and endlessly compelling. The world that Harpman has created is as grim and dystopian as anything dreamt up by Margaret Atwood, and yet, there is beauty in this strange land too.
If you are someone that likes their stories wrapped up with a bow on top, then this book is absolutely not for you. For those of us that prefer to consider the vast indifference of nature and the tragedy that is existence… pull up a chair, and bring your walking boots.