What an absolute diamond of a book. This is a book to take your time over, to savour, to let the outrage, the wit, the carefully crafted criticism of our collective way of life sink into you, speak to you, and let’s face it, scream out in long-suppressed anguish of feminist fury. It is a book for the age of the plague, where she tells us that all life is pandemonium. ‘Let’s Complain’, she says, and she proceeds to do so.
Even while her complaints are in full flight, Ellmann writes with such grace and such insight. And, it is clever. Very clever. I enjoyed each single “discontent” contained in the book, and before I dive in with some general comments, I thought I would offer my thoughts on a couple of my favourites of the collection in insolation from the rest of the book. Which is not to say that the book does not flow, or that no thought has gone into the structure of the book. Because, boy does the order of the various discontents of the book run in a very satisfying manner. So, to begin:
Things Are Against Us: Ellmann is not wrong. Things are against us. I found myself nodding along in recognition, while laughing at her depiction of the conspiracy of THINGS. She pretty much manages to nail it. We all know it. Thing are against us.
Three Strikes: I struggled to decide whether the joy of this was in the writing, or in the over(?)use of footnotes, which was almost as if Ellmann wanted to take us one side and have a completely different conversation to the one contained within the piece itself. In many ways it was like trying to listen to one conversation while at the same time eavesdropping on another going on at the table next to you in a restaurant. And yet you could be completely focussed on both. But the real power of this piece came in the opening sentences, which effectively amounts to women ‘made nice’ and it didn’t work. She then goes on in a scathing denouncement of male violence against women, and offers her rather startling proposal to solve the issue. I don’t want to spoil the book for you here. Read it. Tell me what you think of her idea. Personally, I stand with Ellmann. I think she is right on the money here. The short pauses interspersed in the piece are also cutting – a not so subtle reminder about how often women’s work is interrupted by the mundanities of home life.
And for me, this is the heart of the collection of pieces, which is effectively a searing feminist critique of how women are forced to live in today’s world, subjected to patriarchal displays of power, all while having to endure a life sentence of bra wearing. And ever the Dickensian, she asks if there is anything more important, in the end, than listening to Bach and reading Dickens. And as I know some people (for example, me) will be looking for it: she does throw in a couple of Dickens references, with a masterful casualness, such as the online Miss Havishams ‘documenting their disintegration.’ Such an apt and powerful image. But then, this is a powerful book. One of my favourite reads this year, a worthy follow on from the epic Ducks, Newburyport.
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