Book Review: Strong Woman

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Baroness Brady of Knightsbridge, Vice-Chairman of West Ham FC, one of Lord Sugar’s advisors on the Apprentice and formerly the youngest Managing Director of a PLC in the UK, is undeniably an impressive woman. In her appropriately titled autobiography ‘Strong Woman’, two key themes emerge.

First, Karren Brady’s primary concern is independence. From the outset she tells us ‘I have taught myself to rely on no one but myself.’ It’s evidently the key to her single-minded pursuit of success. But it also seems she has emphasised her independence to such an extent that she has driven others away.

Brady says of her husband ‘He will never say, ‘Where are you going tonight? What time will you be home?’ and I never question him like that either’. Well I’m not someone who needs to know where my partner is at all times of day, but I do like to know his plans and roughly when he’ll be home. Brady makes this sound like interrogation, but it doesn’t have to be. It’s not clinginess either, it’s simply showing that you care.

After life-threatening brain surgery for an aneurysm her husband has her making calls from her hospital bed to help him out with a work issue. He appears to show an absolute lack of care and empathy for his wife. Her conclusion? ‘When the chips are down, you can only rely on yourself… The things in life that have never let me down are my career and me.’ The fact that she cannot trust or rely on anyone else saddens me enormously. Sure, it’s the key to her ‘success’. But if success means trusting no one, having no one care for you and only relying on your work and yourself, it’s not something I’ll be chasing.

The second theme is how incredibly hard she works. To quote, ‘I work from the moment I wake up until the moment I go to sleep. I’m not exaggerating.’ I must confess that as impressive as this is, it is not something I envy or wish to emulate. In one anecdote she recalls making the decision to drink less water so that she can go to the toilet less and so have more time for work. This is not ‘success’. This is tragic.

Her level of commitment to her work is, to me, shocking, but for her it is others’ lack of commitment that is unbelievable. She is ‘shocked that some people can be out of reach in the evenings, or at weekends, or on holiday.’ Really? Shocked that people want to have a life outside of work? That not everyone’s life revolves around their job? That not everyone wants to be at the beck and call of their boss? For someone who places such value on independence, I’m surprised she doesn’t get this.

Let’s look at Brady’s idea of success for a moment. In her own words ‘For 13 years I didn’t have a holiday and barely took a day off. If you want to be successful, that us what you have to do.’ And: ‘Nobody got successful leaving work at five o’clock.’ I feel I should let Karren Brady know that I used all of my annual leave last year and often leave the office at five. I also consider myself very successful: I’m happy and have people in my life that I can trust. I wonder if she can say the same.

Book Review: The Bell Jar

The Bell Jar, by Sylvia Plath

The Bell Jar: it’s a classic, acclaimed as a major work of feminist literature. Semi-autobiographical and published less than a month before Sylvia Plath killed herself in 1963. I felt slightly embarrassed I hadn’t read it at my ripe old age.

So, how was my experience of this seminal text? I’m so sorry to say it, but it wasn’t a good one. It was Plath’s only novel and it felt like a writer’s clumsy first attempt. Esther, our protagonist, is two dimensional. Sure, she suffers from depression, which you would hope would make her a more complex character. But she is hard to connect to, she doesn’t ring true. The other characters are stock too; there’s the Medical Degree Boyfriend, the Prim and Proper Mother, the Unsympathetic Male Doctor.

What about as a work of feminist fiction? Well it works insofar as it shows how it used to be for women. Esther is so stressed out with the fear of getting pregnant that it consumes her. Pregnancy, then, meant that the lives of educated, driven women could be felled in one swoop. It made me so grateful for the control I am able to have over my own body, through societal and scientific advances.

Overall, the ‘women’s issues’ that Esther faces are not mine. As a feminist text, the Bell Jar did not feel relevant to me. One aspect felt more current; the pushing of women into more ladylike careers. Esther is educated and intelligent, yet her mother persists in encouraging her to learn shorthand and become a typist rather than building a successful career.

Recently I visited the London Transport Museum, where a video was showing on a loop. In it, women who worked in the industry described the obstacles they had to overcome to make it in a male-dominated world. One worker pointed out that when young girls show an interest in making or building things they are pointed towards the more feminine routes of art and architecture rather than construction and engineering. This, then, is still a 21st century feminist issue.

As a short book, the Bell Jar is worth a quick read. Try to give it a go when you are not already feeling depressed. As a warning, if you are not already, this novel is sure to get you down.

Book Review: Americanah

Americanah, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

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This book had been sitting on the shelf for months. It was one of those books I felt I should read, rather than really wanting to. But it turned out to be one of the most gripping reads of the last year for me. Whatever its faults, Americanah is utterly readable.

Chimamanda Adichie, the writer, is the woman who wrote the essay and gave her TED talk on why ‘We Should All Be Feminists’. And although Americanah is dominated by race, there are clear feminist themes at play here too.

It’s refreshing to find a novel with such a real, complex female protagonist. Ifemelu is not perfect; she’s not a strong heroine like Katniss Everdeen, an intelligent and quick-witted Austen woman, or a plucky Lyra from His Dark Materials. At times she is unsympathetic. She lies, she cheats, she sleeps with a man she knows is married with a child. But her flaws make her a great character and much more real than the perfect heroines you find in other novels with a female protagonist (of which there are few). It is also refreshing to get to know such a three dimensional character. We learn that Ifemelu is sensual and loves sex, she is also educated and intelligent, devoted to finding the best haircare regime and also suffers from depression. How often does a woman in a novel get to do and be all of these things, as opposed to just ‘shopaholic’ or ‘rebel’ or ‘bitch’?

There are some inconsistencies to Ifemelu, and to the novel itself, which irritated me. Ifemelu is open in her hostility towards women who find a rich man to rely on. Yet she does this herself. Twice. Although the book centres primarily on race and immigration, the way Ifemelu gets her U.S. residency permit is swiftly glossed over. In fact, her rich boyfriend smoothes her path into a well-paid job, where her employer sponsors her Green Card. When she is poor in America she falls into a dark depression, but the happy-ever-after finale to the novel sees her ending up with one of the richest men in Nigeria. How convenient.

As a discussion of race, I learned a lot in this novel. It challenged my own perceptions, including my ‘white privilege’. As a feminist novel, though, I’m not so sure. Ifemelu floats through life, with parents, friends and teachers who have high aspirations for her, who never mention her sex as a barrier to her success. We see her teenage boyfriend’s mother, an educated woman and a university lecturer in Nigeria, and the spirited bunch of women intellectuals she socialises with in America. The novel is set in the recent past and yet not once do we hear of any difficulties for girls to access education or prejudices they face. Yet remember the viral #BringBackOurGirls campaign of 2014? Or the massacre of 2,000 people in Nigeria by Boko Haram (literally ‘western education is forbidden’) just a few weeks ago? I would have liked this issue to have at least been given a mention. Perhaps a topic for another novel, though.