Sunday 17 December 2017

Books: When the sisters create a world with few emotions

Fiction: About Sisterland, Martina Devlin, Ward Press, pbk, 400 pages, €16.99

Raising the stakes: Martina Devlin has changed tack once again
Raising the stakes: Martina Devlin has changed tack once again
About Sisterland

Eilis O'Hanlon

Same but different. That's the usual rule for the bestselling novelist. Once you've had success with one type of book, just keep repeating the formula with slight variations. That's never been Martina Devlin's way.

Each of the Irish Independent columnist's novels has been strikingly different. Her previous work, The House Where it Happened, was a powerfully affecting tale of ordinary women accused of witchcraft in 18th-century Ulster. About Sisterland couldn't be more different. The only comparison is that both books contain a glossary, and both deal in part with women's experience of pregnancy and motherhood in a closed, rule-bound society. Which, come to think of it, is hardly a negligible connection. It's been a common theme in Devlin's writing.

The glossary is included this time round to help make sense of the language and terms of a futuristic world run by women, the titular Sisterland, in which men are kept merely for drudge labour and breeding - though they'd probably quite enjoy the latter duty, to be fair.

The new society was created after a Third World War in 2035 which killed more than two billion people, the result, Sisterland's leaders assert, of the male propensity for violence and capitalism. As a result, emotions, known here as "moes", are strictly regulated, and some, including grief, forbidden because they "lead to morbid states of mind".

Constance is selected for "babyfusion" and so finds herself alone with a man for the first time. His name is Harper, and she finds herself connecting with him in unexpected ways, and questioning the validity of the authoritarian system which brought them together. Constance is already harbouring doubts; her feelings for Harper bring them into focus.

The dystopian elements of the story are familiar tropes in speculative fiction; the role of gender, likewise, has been explored in numerous classic works from Charlotte Perkins Gilman's Herland to Ursula Le Guin's Left Hand of Darkness. In one sense, About Sisterland can be read as a mirror version of The Handmaid's Tale, Margaret Atwood's science fiction novel about a future US in which women are ruthlessly subjugated. Women may be in charge here, with an apparently benevolent female figurehead known as 'Beloved', whose creepy, gnomic utterances have become the foundation stones of society in the manner of Orwell's Big Brother; but, unsurprisingly, it turns out that all-female rule is no better.

The unfolding of the story has some of the same inevitability inherent in the genre. Extremes are bound to be exposed as destabilising, with balance and moderation seen instead as the key to a healthy society. Emotions, likewise, prove to be the predictable trigger that sparks change. (Though doesn't that, in a way, prove the Sisterhood right about the danger of unregulated feelings?) The moral is exactly as one would expect - too much of what makes us human is lost when individuality is subsumed into the collective ("Not the self but the State" goes one slogan), and messy reality is always preferable to enforced myth.

About Sisterland is less engaging than Martina Devlin's last book; ironically, given the theme, it's a book driven more by ideas than emotion. Constance's plight doesn't have the same urgency as Ellen's in The House Where it Happened, and Sisterland often feels not fully realised enough to be a believable setting. Devlin, nevertheless, deserves huge credit for not playing it safe, and it would make a great film. This book won't satisfy all her faithful readers, but it will find her new ones, and she's definitely raised the stakes when it comes to wondering what on earth she will do next.

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