As we continue to feel the after-effects of #MeToo, fiction can help us to process.
Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale may be almost 35 years old, but in this post-#MeToo era its exploration of the oppression of women, sexual abuse and power dynamics are more relevant than ever.
#MeToo was originally coined by anti-sexual violence campaigner Tarana Burke in 1997, and came to prominence in autumn 2017 when the New York Times published a story alleging decades of abuse by Harvey Weintein by actresses including Rose McGowan and Ashley Judd.
The high-profile allegations led to a reckoning in industries from hospitality to politics, a reckoning that is still ongoing. In the meantime, Weinstein is due to go on trial accused of forcing one woman to give him oral sex, and of raping a second woman.
While #MeToo, and the #TimesUp movement against sexual harassment that was launched in its wake, continue to make headlines, fiction is also contributing to the discussion.
In the wake of #MeToo, it’s difficult not to look at a number of recent and forthcoming novels which cover sexual assault, the diminishing of women’s rights, and male abuses of power, through the lens of the movement. That’s especially true given the way sexual abuse and assault intersect with issues such as gender equality and the commoditisation of women’s bodies.
Don’t be mistaken, these are not sensational takes on the topics. They all, whether they were released just before the Weinstein allegations or are still to come out, thoughtfully and chillingly explore what it means to be a woman today.
These 10 books are essential reading, and show how fiction can be a powerful tool for understanding and processing big issues.
What Red Was by Rosie Price
Through four years at university, Kate and Max are inseparable. But for Kate, loving Max means also knowing his wealthy family, the Rippons, who are generous, social, and quietly repressed.
Kate’s life is shattered just after graduation in a bedroom at Max’s home, while a party goes on downstairs. What Red Was is an unflinching look at sexual violence and the tyranny of memory.
In Kate, we have a protagonist who is trapped after a trauma, and who is intimately acquainted with the sacrifices involved in staying silent and the courage needed to speak out.
What Red Was is out on 9 May (Vintage, £12.99).
Trust Exercise by Susan Choi
A key part of the #MeToo movement has been the discussion around power dynamics, especially in regards to powerful men and their influence over younger women and men.
It’s this that Susan Choi’s new novel Trust Exercise explores with the character of Mr Kingsley, a charismatic and manipulative drama teacher at a performing arts school.
Students Sarah and David – in love – find themselves caught in Mr Kingsley’s bubble, where the boundary between students and teacher is blurred. When the bubble bursts, the students are left to deal with the fallout.
Years later we learn that we were told about Sarah, David and their fellow students is not true, but not completely false either, and that the real story has had long-lasting and dark effects on them all.
Trust Exercise is out now (Serpent’s Tail, £14.99).
The Water Cure by Sophie Mackintosh
Grace, Lia and Sky have grown up sheltered, raised to be afraid of men. Living on an isolated island, their father King has lain barbed wire and anchored buoys in the water to keep people – men – out and his daughters in.
But when King disappears and three strange men wash ashore, life on the island changes, with sexual tensions and sibling rivalries flaring.
As Grace, Lia and Sky confront the threat presented by the men, The Water Cure explores female desire and humanity’s capacity for violence.
The Water Cure is out now (Penguin, £8.99).
Milkman by Anna Burns
Milkman is a book about the Troubles and a literary novel that plays with style, but at its heart it’s really a book about gossip and hearsay.
The protagonist, middle sister, – like all the other characters, left nameless – is trying to keep her mother from discovering her maybe-boyfriend and keep everyone in the dark about her encounter with the Milkman.
But when first brother-in-law sniffs out her struggle, middle sister becomes interesting, which is the last thing she wanted to be.
A story of how silence, deliberate deafness and inaction have enormous consequences, this prize-winning novel taps into current conversations even though it’s set in the past.
Milkman is out now (Faber & Faber, £8.99).
Red Clocks by Leni Zumas
The “heartbeat” bill is a terrifying piece of legislation which allows US states to restrict a woman’s access to an abortion after she is six weeks pregnant, a time when many women don’t even know they’re pregnant.
The scariest thing about it? It’s not fictional. But it’s also not too far from the situation described in Leni Zumas’ Red Clocks.
The novel is set in a small town in a near-future America, where IVF and abortion have become illegal, and where a law making it illegal for women to have children without a partner is on the horizon. In this town live Ro, desperate to become a mother, Susan, trapped in a failing marriage, and Gin, an outcast who becomes the centre of a modern-day witch hunt.
Red Clocks is an exploration of how the erosion of women’s rights leaves them in a position where they’re susceptible to abuses of power. Its all-too plausible plot is a warning to us all.
Red Clocks is out now (The Borough Press, £8.99).
The Farm by Joanne Ramos
It can often seem like women’s bodies – subjected to criticism, and worse – belong to everyone but women themselves, and the problem is twice as bad for differently-abled women, or those from minority backgrounds.
In Joanna Ramos’ The Farm, bodies are literally a commodity: at Golden Oaks, a luxury retreat, women get organic meals, fitness trainers, massages and money. The only thing they have to do in return is dedicate themselves to producing the perfect baby, for someone else.
Into Golden Oaks comes Jane, an immigrant in search of a better future, who sees a chance to change her life. But what will the cost be?
The Farm is out on 7 May (Bloomsbury).
Vox by Christina Dalcher
Silence was the most powerful weapon employed by Weinstein – for years allegations about him swirled, but a combination of fear and non-disclosure agreements allowed him to continue being a celebrated producer.
In Christina Dalcher’s Vox, women have been forcibly silenced. A new American government has ruled that women can only speak 100 words per day. Any more than that, and they get zapped with a thousand volts of electricity.
Jean McClellan, formerly a celebrated scientist, spends her days in silence, watching her husband happily comply with the law and her oldest son buy into the idea that women should be subservient, and trying to keep her young daughter from getting hurt.
But women can’t be silenced forever, and Jean has a plan to reclaim her voice…
Vox is out now (HQ, £8.99).
Asymmetry by Lisa Halliday
Lisa Halliday’s Asymmetry is a novel in three parts, which initially seem disconnected. In the first, a young editor begins an affair with the much older and world-famous writer Ezra Blazer.
In the second part, an Iraqi-American economist is detained by immigration on route to Kurdistan. And in the third, we read the transcript of Ezra Blazer’s appearance on Desert Island Discs.
Asymmetry is an unconventional love story, a look at how the people within relationships can perform for each other and the outside world, and a commentary on contemporary life.
Asymmetry is out now (Granta Books, £8.99).
The Power by Naomi Alderman
The Power was released just a few months before the Weinstein allegations, and it’s almost like Naomi Alderman knew how much anger would be generated by women.
In the novel, told from the points of view of three women and one man, young women wake one day to find that they can cause physical harm just by touching someone else, and can also awaken this power in older women.
Suddenly infinitely more powerful than men, revolts and uprisings spread throughout the world before a darker side to the new world order emerges.
The Power is, if you’ll excuse the pun, a powerful look at gender, hierarchy and power, and at the strength of women’s rage.
The Power is out now (Penguin, £8.99).
Anatomy of a Scandal by Sarah Vaughan
Hinging on the story of a government minister accused of a terrible crime, Anatomy of a Scandal weaves a story about three women in close proximity – the alleged victim, the wife and the prosecutor.
Going between the present and the past, Sarah Vaughan looks at how we might never really know someone, and how deep we can bury past traumas and make ourselves anew.
Gripping and addictive reading, Anatomy of a Scandal will stay with you long after reading.
Anatomy of a Scandal is out now (Simon & Schuster, £7.99).
Images: supplied by publishers