Book Review | The War on Women by Sue Lloyd-Roberts

Content warning: this book, and this review, talks about violence, including sexual violence.

Women. We make up half the human race, and yet for so many of us, our very existence is an abhorrence. Women’s lives are simply worth less than their male counterparts. Sue Lloyd-Roberts, a masterful journalist, doesn’t shy away from delving into the deeply uncomfortable and deeply upsetting truth. Meticulously researched, referenced and recounted in a precise yet very human way, this is essential reading.

It’s hard to know where to start with this harrowing but necessary book. The course of her career takes Lloyd-Roberts to the front lines of conflict. She relentlessly pursues truth and justice, and she must have had a remarkable gift to have engaged in the kinds of conversations we hear about. From the other side of the world: the imprisoned women of Saudi Arabia, nothing without a male ‘guardian’, to the use of rape as a weapon of war in the DR Congo – to the close to home: the now-notorious Magdalene Laundries in Ireland that imprisoned unmarried pregnant girls, to the horrors of so-called ‘honour killings’ and prevalence of FGM amongst minority communities in the UK.

While all the stories were horrific and heartbreaking, one that will stay with me as perhaps the most stomach-churning was the documented pattern between international aid workers and sex trafficking. It was perhaps naive of me not to know about this: as if it were unthinkable that Western men working with diplomatic passports (and immunity) and “United Nations” in their job titles would be fuelling this terrible underground business. Because that’s what it is: there is big money to be made in the kidnapping, torture, abuse and rape of young girls – as young as 12 – tricked or stolen from rural, impoverished areas and sold into sex slavery. And when UN peacekeeping forces arrive in an area, with the purported aim of helping with stabilisation and recovery, they are consciously, actively implicit in the sexual abuse of trafficking victims. And it’s covered up to the highest levels of power.

Sadly, evidence suggests a sex industry involving vulnerable young women is always likely to follow hard on the heels of a large, male-dominated, international peacekeeping force.

It sounds bleak – and it is. But there are rays of hope, too. The book’s subtitle is ‘and the brave ones who fight back.’ In some of the worst places on earth to be a woman, there are grassroots activists risking their lives to advocate for women and girls. There are remarkable women raising their head above the parapet. Their bravery is astonishing. And slowly, things may be starting to change. But Lloyd-Roberts errs on the side of caution rather than optimism when it comes to a sustained cultural, social and economic shift in the way women are regarded globally.

You’ll be enraged. You’ll be heartbroken. But this is a book that needed to written, and that needs to be read. Educating yourself and others is a small but important first step in fighting against these horrific injustices going on both at home and abroad. Sue Lloyd-Roberts sadly passed away before she could completely finish the book. But she’s left an incredibly important legacy, and reading this account is one way of keeping her powerful voice and mission alive.

Book Review | On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong

Born into a society in ruins after a catastrophic war, a boy – known only as Little Dog  – and his mother flee Vietnam for a life in America – to be precise, the tenements of Hartford, Connecticut, a place of unbearable winters and drug addicts and thin apartment walls, where a few miles away lie expanses of tobacco fields and nothingness.

Little Dog’s mother works in a nail salon. With very little English, her most spoken refrain is ‘sorry’. She returns home at night with aching bones and the smell of acetone on her skin. Years later, now a grown man, Little Dog writes her a letter, poring over their life together. It’s a letter he knows she’ll never read: ‘The very impossibility of your reading this is all that makes my telling it possible,’ he writes.

‘I’m not telling you a story so much as a shipwreck – the pieces floating, finally legible.’

The ripple effects of war are an undercurrent through the novel; leaving their mark on bodies, memories, language. The power and the failure of language and the bridges it can build and break are explored in a fascinating way: Little Dog, the family’s translator, is left humiliated when they go out to buy Oxtail and none of them know the right word in English, resorting to miming the animal and being met with pitiful and blank stares. The language Little Dog and his mother share is also, in a sense, paralysed in time, her never having finished school.

‘As a girl, you watched, from a banana grove, your schoolhouse collapse after an American napalm raid. At five, you never stepped into a classroom again. Our mother tongue, then, is no mother at all – but an orphan. Our Vietnamese a time capsule, a mark of where your education ended, ashed. Ma, to speak in our mother tongue is to speak only partially in Vietnamese, but entirely in war.’

Little Dog’s mother, whose English name is Rose, has a frenzied love for him that spills over into violence. Herself a victim of violence, both in her home with her ex-husband and in being a product of a wartime union between an American GI and a Vietnamese girl.  The transmission of trauma between generations is deftly explored, both in the oral histories passed down from grandmother and mother to son, and implicit in the reactions to seemingly harmless scenarios:

‘I stood bewildered, my top army helmet tilted on my head. I was an American boy parroting what I saw on TV. I didn’t know that the war was still inside you, that there was a war to begin with, that once it enters you it never leaves – but merely echoes, a sound forming the face of your own son.’

One summer, when he is fourteen, Little Dog begins working in the tobacco fields some eight miles away from home. It’s there that he meets Trevor, an older teenager who was prescribed OxyContin for the pain from a dirt bike injury and is now hooked on drugs. They discover a desire for each other that Trevor can’t reconcile with his image of himself, an ‘all-American boy.’ He wonders out loud to Little Dog if it’s just a phase.

The novel is intensely lyrical, laden with a musicality of language that is unsurprising when you learn of Vuong’s background as a poet. There are, on occasion, moments of inscrutable prose, or metaphors not fully explored – things you can get away with in poetry, but to a lesser extent in literature. But while it’s is exquisite with language and the subject matter is heavy, Vuong still manages to make the prose accessible. It’s truly a unique talent and a feat of accomplishment, especially for a first novel.

Vuong captures human experience in all its pleasure and pain, a bittersweet melancholy in even the most innocuous of sentences. One night, Little Dog sits by himself, kicking his light-up trainers – ‘the world’s smallest ambulances, going nowhere.’

Book Review | The Testaments by Margaret Atwood

Here we have three stories of Gilead: one from a pillar of the regime, one from a commander’s daughter who has grown up in that society, and one a voice from the outside who comes in. Atwood returns to the world she created in 1985, a world which is as relevant as ever (see my review of The Handmaid’s Tale) and she is coming back to fill in the gaps; fleshing out and expanding upon the dystopian universe that has gripped so many millions of readers.

It’s an immersive narrative, far more plot-driven than I expected and it plays out like a thriller. We know, thanks to The Handmaid’s Tale, that Gilead does eventually fall. Now we have an insight into how and why: the rotting from the inside out and the exposé of horror brought to light from someone once so integral in upholding the system.

“I’d believed all that claptrap about life, liberty, democracy, and the rights of the individual I’d soaked up at law school. These were eternal verities and we would always defend them. I’d depended on that as if on a magic charm.”

These women recount their own lived experiences – in a society where women are forbidden from learning to read and write (even certain pastimes, like the embroidery of symbols, end up being banned – they are deemed ‘dangerously close to writing’) – this is a voice for the voiceless. Aunt Lydia’s accounts were my favourite by far: a three-dimensional look at a revered and feared female leader, whose monstrous indifference and calculated power plays make for hugely compelling reading. At the same time, we have two young girls, who come to learn overwhelming truths about their identities and who will be sent on a mission that could see them lose everything.

“I walked behind her over the uneven paving: it felt spongy, as if my foot could go through it at any moment. The world was no longer solid and dependable, it was porous and deceptive. Anything could disappear. At the same time, everything I looked at was very clear. It was like one of those surrealist paintings we’d studied in school the year before. Melted clocks in the desert, solid but unreal.’

It wasn’t wholly satisfying: the novel seems almost self-satisfied in its denouement, but things are still left unsaid. There is a lot that we still don’t know about the creation, geography and population of this world, and I felt there were missed opportunities for tying in our current global preoccupations such as the climate emergency and toxicities in our environment, and how this might have contributed to the decline in fertility. It was a long novel, and I felt while some of the right questions were answered, some pressing ones were not.

Lacking somewhat the gravitas of its literary predecessor, and veering more into commercial territory with its tone and pacing, some readers will cry in dismay at its position on the Booker shortlist and will feel that Atwood should have left well enough alone. I disagree: a greater degree of accessibility when it comes to hallowed authors is not a bad thing, and I found the novel gripping, intelligently written and a worthwhile read for anyone wishing to revisit the horrifying universe Atwood has crafted so well.