I did think this dystopian story about young women being punished for sex with powerful men by being relegated to a brutal desert prison was good, but I found it hard to reconcile all the amazing reviews with my own reading experience…another case of being sucked in the by hype before I actually read the book, methinks.
Yolanda is one the girls in the prison (which is actually an abandoned sheep stations, manned by two male guards). I really liked Yolanda’s journey as she became more and more animal, stripping herself of cultural baggage and becoming no more than flesh and bone in a purposeful way (as opposed to a reductive way). The descriptions of her wandering the desolate paddocks slung with rabbit traps, carcasses and skins after she learned to hunt to survive were really powerful, and even though it sounds kind of gross, she was never a figure of horror – more of power and agency.
I also found the shifting power dynamics between the girls and the male guards really compelling, especially the way that Boncer’s ‘power’ could only be enforced by violence and threat (and finally rape), and that his desire for control basically emerged from his fear of the young women.
I think the main problem for me with the book was that I felt it either needed to be longer and more fleshed out, or shorter and more pithy. There were a lot of unanswered questions – how did the girls get there, considering they later had to build the road for their captors to return on? Why did they have such terrible food, but such a high-tech fence to keep them in? (ie. if there was only enough food for everyone to survive a couple of months, why bother with such an enormous and expensive fence?) Why the heck didn’t the girls gang up the men earlier? I know Boncer had a stick, but really, they could have pounced on him all at once and locked him up somewhere. I understand that the vagueness of some parts of the narrative was probably designed to create a mood of uncertainty and frustration, but because some other bits of the story were quite well worked through, it made the other sections feel underwritten. On the other hand, I think if the story had been shorter, like a short story or a novel, maybe it would have been pithier and more effective, more shamelessly allegorical and hence more powerful. I suppose I found parts of the story quite bland and I didn’t really respond that strongly to the sections I felt was supposed to. However, I wonder if this is more to do with the hype around the book and my consequent expectations, and less about its actual quality.
There are many wonderful moments of prose – some of Wood’s imagery is wondrous, such as Verla’s vision of the little brown trout that lives inside her, or her recurring vision of the hollowed out lamb’s head being pulled down over her own. I really recommend it but for me it was more about its messages around misogyny than it was the actual plot.