Well I liked the opening, but it took me a while to get over the slime of St John, the sleaziness he spread eve2 stars 3 stars 4 stars 4.5 stars 5 stars!!
Well I liked the opening, but it took me a while to get over the slime of St John, the sleaziness he spread everywhere. There was a voice, a piping, femme-seeming voice struggling with self-confidence that seemed to be Mary's, but nothing was clean, there was this fug of the male gaze. The women were preoccupied with their looks, their attractiveness, craving male attention. But this gender horror is real, rape culture is in us, there is no pure desire, pure self we can hear inside us like a bell, we can't wash off the slime, we have to heal, slowly, with help, with difficulty, incompletely...
I found the writing beautiful. Crisp and original, sensitive and honest, observant and courageous. And it makes me work, I have to sift the brilliant insights from the deliberate dross of patriarchal cliche, the bad excuses for dead women, the bad sex scenes, the pat descriptions of feeling, the clunky symbols (the gift of a caged nightingale?) left orphaned to highlight their silence (or did I just fail to read the signified?) In short, feminist unsurprise is mixed with surprise. Men in bookshops hold weighty, joyless tomes (nod). Mary realises she is unhappy, and that she can survive it (ah!). It's quite difficult, it's bumpy, this reading, but life has this slubby texture too, and by not smoothing the way here Oyeyemi reminds us again and again that protest, rebellion, healing and remaking can't take place in a cleanroom purged of culture, enacted by pure uncorrupted subjects. We the sullied, the colonised, must remake our world from what it is and what we can pull out of ourselves.
The unreliability and complicity of writers and readers is played out in so many ways. A women confesses: 'My body, with its pain and mess and hunger – if I could have bribed it to go away, I would have'. Here is that violent Cartesian dualism that feminism, like other philosophies and movements, has often refuted, yet I myself am constantly repeating its language, tearing self from self. If there are so many contexts where we experience 'the body' as a betrayer, how can biopolitical awareness and (hopefully) praxis respond? Oyeyemi complicates, makes all selves, mixed desires, facets of an unstable whole that could perhaps be held together by love. Camus in The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays speaks of experience or sense data as a 'shimmer of truths', perhaps the same shimmer observed by 'the witness' in The Four-Gated City. Does Oyeyemi elaborately dethrone 'the witness'?
Clearly, witnessing is important. The gaze of St John dominates many of the early sections. There is a link between the gaze and desire that becomes clear when St John shrinks from, becomes angry at, launches into a sexist diatribe against, the women 'who look back'. Until this point, female desire has been a desire for submission. The women who look back are 'trouble'; they will not submit; their desire is for control. This is Oyeyemi's move. She answers the male word, looks back at the (white) male gaze (Mary covers St John's eyes), reshapes the material of fairytale (Bluebeard, for one) and conventional (read patriarchal) narrative over and over, until it serves. It isn't glorious, but it serves. The scars are in it, but there are no more dead women conveniently patching the fabric. There are no more bad reasons not to love, no more shoddy excuses for shoddy literature.
Also, as in The Hearing Trumpet and other feminist writing, Oyeyemi works a kinship with animals, reinterpreting processes of learning language and bodily experience. In a way, she hands over to men the work to be done. Remake yourselves, for we have been busy already, we are tired. It's your turn....more