(Review first published in Newtown Review of Books)
Nearly 60 years ago, in a Hobart pub called The Man at the Wheel, I had a conversation with the novelist Christopher Koch on the subject of what he called boygirls and girlboys. It was getting to be impossible, he said, to tell the difference, and he was troubled by this state of affairs. Things have come a long way since then, and now the matter of gender reassignment and transition from one to the other and back again is not unusual. Maybe there is a pub in Hobart called The Woman at the Wheel. Maybe not.
Gender reassignment is the subject of the main plot line in , which is set in contemporary Britain. I should say at the outset that I have read all the fiction and most of the non-fiction of Fay Weldon, that I delight in each book, and that this one is now my favourite. It dances on a knife-edge of hilarious allegory.
Tyler, the 23-year-old grandson of Ruth the She Devil, who is 84, transitions into Tayla. (Ruth first came on the scene in 1983 in .) The human body can be ‘carved and tucked and seamed into something entirely other and still survive’, although Ruth’s drastic plastic surgery was a disaster. Tyler, it so happens, is the only sympathetic character in a large collection of very flawed and nasty people.
Notable among these is a cold powerful wicked young 25-year-old Australian named Valerie Valeria, whose name means ‘Strong Strong’. It is both a female and a male name. Nothing subtle there. She is generally without any moral sense, and says she has ‘never felt guilty in her life’. The She Devil also is ‘without guilt’. Valerie is ‘a dedicated feminist with a PhD from the University of Sydney’, her thesis being on ‘Feminism in Development’. She is bisexual, leaning towards being lesbian, and she falls in love with Tyler who is beautiful and, as I say, good. Valerie is the driving force in persuading Tyler to transition, because she desires him as a female partner. (Same-sex marriage was legalised in England in 2013.) Finally, there is the wedding, and Tayla wears the lovely dress while Valerie wears the penguin suit. Tayla takes ‘this woman’ to be her ‘wedded husband’. Tyler was ‘awesomely handsome’ but Tayla was ‘merely pretty’. Don’t assume that this marriage marks a happy ending – much fun is made of ‘happy endings’ throughout. They do freeze Tyler’s sperm in case they want to have a baby later.
If you go by the title, and you should, death is on the novel’s mind. Not just local domestic everyday death, but death on a grand scale. Hand in hand with nature, human beings are a destructive lot. When the day is crisp, clear, cloudless, blue, green, gold, the narrator remarks that ‘on such a clear and peaceful day a bomb fell on Hiroshima, the Twin Towers came down, the tsunami rolled over Fukushima’. The lovely thing is that as you shiver in horror at the mention of those catastrophes, you also laugh at the constant juxtaposition of reason and madness, order and chaos. And I do mean laugh out loud. Not to mention the frankness of the language – words I don’t want to print here – you must read them for yourself in the book. This is opera, this is magic. Everything is up for satirical treatment, including humourless ‘feminism’. And the weather is a constant and key player in events: ‘The sense that the weather was merely holding its horses for something worse was very strong.’ The wind will win in the end, and no need here for a spoiler alert.
In the 17th century a group of Carmelite novices escaping religious persecution in Belgium took shelter in a lighthouse on the coast of England. They were on their way to a convent on the Manhood Peninsula (nice). Their lighthouse has become the High Tower of this novel, and it has transitioned into the headquarters of the charity named the Institute for Gender Parity. In the Lantern Room at the very top lives (and eventually dies) Bobbo, aged 94, the only male in the building. Resembling ‘some garden gnome’, he is the one-time husband of Ruth, the She Devil who is President and Chief Executive of the IGP, and who ‘rules the roost’. The women live and work as a community in the High Tower. Security is heavy as a matter of course, with Ruth driving an armoured S-Class Mercedes. The windows of the tower are made from bullet-proof glass. The She Devil is estranged from her children and grandchildren, and until he is 23, Tyler’s existence is unknown to her.
The great project of the IGP throughout the novel is the organisation of a winter equinox ‘Widdershins Walk’ anti-clockwise around the exterior of the phallic symbol that is the High Tower to celebrate 40 years since the founding of IGP and also Ruth’s 85th birthday. The average age of the women of IGP is 72. The walk was Valerie’s idea, and it takes a great deal of organisation, and many meetings. Valerie has studied an ‘Events’ course at university, but has never actually organised any events. The Walk is defeated by the weather. You might have guessed, but don’t worry that I am telling you this, for there are probably five surprises on every page.
Here you will find discussion, and the dramatising and satirising of, among many other things, feminism, Alzheimer’s, euthanasia, youth, age, sex, death, abortion, drugs, psychology, religion, architecture, fashion, food, gender, suicide, fraud, funerals and computer games (in which the sound track consists of ‘warfare, terror and rapine synthesised to make a jolly jape’).
But if there is one thing that spans the whole delirious exercise it is the examination of writing and the construction of fiction. Romantic fiction is one of the evils of the universe. Momus is the god of fiction, the great ‘puppet-master in the sky’ and he is invoked by at least two of the several narrators, asking him to complete the plot and ‘bring the story to fruition’:
So there is in fact a crossover between the world of fiction and the world of the events in Bad writing is derided: ‘History, now fashionably related in the present tense, has deprived the past of its reality.’
And Valerie invokes her chosen goddess, the Mother of All Life, Gaia. After faking an orgasm with Tyler she rises ‘naked and beautiful at the window, her arms raised to heaven’. She calls upon the goddess to send her blessings upon the young, and to ‘let the old wither and perish’.
The whole thing is really about life and death, youth and age, and it is all very very sharp and very very funny. When Ruth comments that old Bobbo is still ‘as strong as a horse’, the doctor known as Dr Pill Popper says: ‘Um, even horses die.’ Remember that.