Deborah Levy, Sharlene Teo, and Sophie Macintosh are carving out new narratives for women in fiction
In her 1978 book, The Sadeian Woman, Angela Carter famously remarked: “A free woman in an unfree society will be a monster.” Women – or anyone for that matter – who doesn’t stick to the coded gender roles of our heteronormative, patriarchal society is perceived as monstrous. It’s why women with healthy sexual appetites are slut-shamed; why men who display traditionally “feminine” values are dismissed as effeminate, and why those who transgress or exist outside the gender binary of man/woman are demonised as queer, freakish ‘monsters’. Because women have traditionally been bound up in a cage of demure femininity, when they choose to break out of the established models of gendered behaviour, we don’t have the language to describe them. Or, so we thought. More and more writers are exploring what it means to live outside these socially acceptable models – to live free, ‘monstrous’ lives. Three books published this year – The Cost of Living by Deborah Levy, Ponti by Sharlene Teo, and The Water Cure by Sophie Macintosh – explore this theme, and ask the question: what does life look like outside gender-coded language and behaviour, and is it even possible to get there?
In April of this year, Deborah Levy published The Cost of Living, the second instalment of her ‘living autobiography’ series. The first book, Things I Don’t Want to Know was written during her 40s, The Cost of Living in her 50s, and a third will be in her 60s. In this second part, Levy writes about creating a new narrative for herself as, after two decades, her stable family life has fallen apart. Her marriage has ended, she’s moved with her children out of the family house, and she is attempting to balance playing the role of mother with the role of writer. These are, as Levy told The Guardian, the “undocumented years in terms of female experience” – middle-aged womanhood is rarely discussed in the mainstream.
As a woman writer, alone in her middle age, Levy has broken the rules of femininity. As Levy herself writes: “When a woman has to find a new way of living and breaks from a societal story that has erased her name, she is expected to be viciously self-hating, crazed with suffering, tearful with remorse.” She writes: “femininity, as written by men and performed by women, was the exhausted phantom that still haunted the early twentieth-century. (…) The phantom of femininity is an illusion, a delusion, a societal hallucination. She is a very tricky character to play and it is a role (sacrifice, endurance, cheerful suffering) that has made some women go mad. This is not a story I wanted to hear all over again. It was time to find new main characters.”
“Restrictive gender roles are being cast aside, and new characters and stories are being written as debut novelists explore what it means to be a free woman in an unfree society”
The Cost of Living is Levy’s manifesto for new forms, characters, and ways of writing women – changing them from minor to major characters in society’s grand narrative. Only once the “phantom of femininity” is thrown out, can women carve out spaces to create their own narratives – and this is exactly what Sharlene Teo and Sophie Macintosh are doing in their debut novels.
Levy’s “phantom of femininity” is the subject of Teo’s Ponti. Set in Singapore, the novel is about three monstrous women. There’s teenage Szu in 2003, friendless and lonely; Amisa, Szu’s mother in the sixties and seventies, the star of cult B-movie Ponti!; and Circe in 2020, who is charged with working on the Ponti! remake leading to her reminisce on her teenage years when she started a new school and struck up a friendship with Szu and her mother Amisa.
Ponti! is a classic horror B-movie: the legendary Pontianak, once an ugly woman, sacrifices her soul in order to be cursed as a beautiful monster who must “feed on victims in order to maintain her looks.” The Pontianak plays on the cultural archetype of the femme fatale: a woman who uses her looks and sexuality to manipulate and ensnare men. The man-eating seductress has become a cultural icon, from the Medusa myth to Nelly Furtado’s classic tune, established to curtail a woman’s unyielding sexuality. Her independence and agency over her body is what makes her so dangerous – and that’s why the hero of Ponti! must kill her by ramming a nail into the back of her head. Ponti!’s monster and the femme fatale embody Levy’s description of femininity as a “phantom.”
In her real life, Amisa plays a similar role to her part as the Pontianak. First, she is the uncontrollable femme fatale, a beautiful and free young woman who slips beyond the grasp of the patriarch: “Her father thought: who is she? How did this terrifying goddess come from me and my sweet but plain pudding of a wife? What is she doing here?” As we know from the B-movie Ponti!, the monstrous man-eater must be subdued, and once Amisa marries and has a child, she changes from playing the femme fatale to her final role as caring mother. As Levy describes, the role of wife and mother is a tricky one – of endurance and cheerful suffering – and it leads to Amisa going mad, suffocated by femininity.
In Macintosh’s The Water Cure, women similarly aren’t safe in their bodies – but in a much more literal way. The novel’s central family has removed themselves from the world in order to protect their daughters – Grace, Lia, and Sky – from an unnamed illness, by surrounding themselves with water. The girls have been raised away from the poisonous outside world, and away from men. Although the novel is being described as set in a dystopia, The Water Cure’s world sounds uncannily familiar to our own.
The girls have been raised by their parents, King and Mother (allegorical names that represent the patriarchy), and although the girls’ world is supposedly a utopia away from the dangers of men, the family is undoubtedly still a heteronormative patriarchy, ruled by King. The sisters are taught to partake in “therapies” that they’re told will protect them. They’re psychologically bullied into distributing their love between their family members, made to self-harm, wrapped in muslin cloth, and thrown into a sauna until they collapse. These “therapies” aren’t to protect the girls; they’re being taught to control their bodies, sexuality, and emotions, which are perceived as dangerous. Emotion must only be released under strict conditions; unwieldy bodies must be contained, and sexuality must be kept under wraps. This is just like how we teach young women to curtail their bodies and behaviour – to act ladylike, to stay indoors, to not show off their bodies. The Water Cure’s therapies are used to restrict femininity into the patriarch’s approved shape.
When a band of men wash up on the shore, the sisters learn the power of their repressed femininity with devastating consequences. A woman who breaks free from coded femininity is a monster, and The Water Cure has not one, but three monstrous femmes.
In our contemporary moment, with the #MeToo movement and the move towards repealing strict abortion laws in Ireland, the release of these three books, which each explore a woman’s right to autonomy, is well-timed. As more and more women writers refuse to partake in the exhausted phantom of gendered narratives and instead write themselves as major characters, the literary world is being shaken up. Restrictive gender roles are being cast aside, and new characters and stories are being written as debut novelists explore what it means to be a free woman in an unfree society – or, as Angela Carter aptly put it, a monster.
The Cost of Living by Deborah Levy is out now.
Ponti by Sharlene Teo is out now.
The Water Cure by Sophie Macintosh is out 24 May.