Women Talking by Miriam Toews
Herself a survivor of a Mennonite childhood, Miriam Troews has drawn on shocking events within one such community as the launching pad for her eighth book. Between 2005 and 2009, over 100 women and girls, one as young as three, were drugged and raped at night. The community leaders accused the women of lying, or of being rightly punished by God for their sins, until one man was caught breaking into a woman’s room. In Women Talking, the Mennonite men have gone to the city to bail their accused brothers and bring them home to await trial. The women have less than forty-eight hours to decide what to do.
Since the worst has already happened, the novel’s tension hangs on whether the women will find the courage to escape. Although their painstaking attempts to find guidance in the Bible – which, of course, they’ve never read – could occasionally slow the pace, their journeys to self-advocacy and minds of their own is extremely moving. Both a rare insight into a closed community and a valuable contribution to the conversation around #metoo, Women Talking is published by Faber, to whom thanks for my review copy. Reading it straight after Old Baggage, about other heroines of the feminist fight, I’m left with feelings of rage at the ubiquity of paternalism, and gratitude that my own religious upbringing was nowhere near as damaging as this.
There’s a story about a religious community in my forthcoming short story collection, Becoming Someone, where, given the limited options for women in mediaeval England, Sister Perpetua finds some kind of home. If you subscribe to my author newsletter before 19th November, you’ll be in with the chance of winning a signed copy. If you use Facebook, I’d love to celebrate with you at my online book launch where, the more people participate the more I’ll donate to Book Aid. If you’ve a moment to spare on 23rd November, do drop in!
The Incendiaries by RO Kwon
Unfortunately, Will’s love isn’t enough to anchor Phoebe. Although she doesn’t believe in God, she’d like to, and a campus cult led by the charismatic John Leal, who claims to have escaped the North Korean gulag, gradually sucks her in. Beginning with group confessions, the cult moves through self-flagellation to direct action. When five girls are killed in an attack on an abortion clinic, Phoebe goes missing.
Although there are short sections credited to both Phoebe and John Leal, this is Will’s story, and we can’t be sure quite how reliable is. After all, ashamed he’s not as wealthy as the other students, he’s told Phoebe he’s studying when he’s actually waiting tables in a restaurant in order to pay the bills. He’s also not immune to aggressive acts either and comes to regret the violence that drives Phoebe into the cult.
Born in South Korea herself, RO Kwon’s debut novel is a story of Korean Americans, young love, loss and religiosity. It’s also, when there’s so much attention to the dangers of radical Islam, a timely reminder that Christians can be terrorists too. Thanks to Virago for my review copy.