Tag Archives: Abi Daré

Some Monstrous Women in Books

Monstrous women appear in many novels, including those written by women. Some are redeemed, and some are defeated and one or two even triumph. A few are the main character. They all help the plot along in some way. I note that men can be monstrous too, but when they behave as these women do it appears insignificant. 

For this post I present some books that include monstrous women, with links to my reviews on Bookword.

Unredeemed

Angel by Elizabeth Taylor (1957)

Angel is monstrous; a writer of flamboyant and excessive fiction that is full of errors and anachronisms and other writerly solecisms (such as using real people’s names). The financial success of her novels came from the popularity of her overblown prose and the outrageousness of her style. Angel herself was certain that she should be spoken of in the same breath as Shakespeare and Goethe (whose name she could not pronounce). Her publisher says that she writes ‘with ignorance and imagination’. She has no sense of humour, no self-doubt and no judgement. Angel is arrogant, rude, selfish and opinionated, and what she doesn’t like she ignores (such as her aunt, the First World War, critics, poverty, people who challenge her).

Flora in The Soul of Kindness, also by Elizabeth Taylor, (1964) has a magnificent unawareness and entitlement that drives people to death, unsuitable marriage and misery. We all know someone like Flora, attractive, without insight or self-awareness, but yet she is everybody’s favourite. Perhaps we even want to be her friend, because some of her lustre might rub off on us. Elizabeth Taylor shows us the damage such creatures can create.

Great Granny Webster by Caroline Blackwood (1977)

The narrator is sent to stay with her great-grandmother and finds the experience horrific. The old lady had a toxic upbringing imbued with Victorian middleclass values. She imposes on her young relative the rigid formality, the meeting of the expectations of others, the refusal to express emotions, the belief in her own righteousness, all from that upbringing.

And these get their come-uppance

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen (1813)

We learn that Lady Catherine de Bourgh ‘was extremely indignant’ at the marriage of her nephew, Mr Darcy, to Miss Elizabeth Bennet, ‘and she gave way to all the genuine frankness of her character’. She had paid a warning visit to Elizabeth in which she told the young woman,

‘Miss Bennet, you ought to know that I am not to be trifled with. But however insincere you may choose to be, you will not find me so. My character has ever been celebrated for its sincerity and frankness, and in a cause of such moment as this, I shall certainly not depart from it.’ 

Her abusive language to her nephew severed relations for a while, eventually smoothed over by Elizabeth.

Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier (1938) 335

Few women live in the imagination as strongly as Mrs Danvers, in contrast to the meek second never-named wife of Max de Winter. The housekeeper resents the new wife and seems to own Manderley in the absence of the first Mrs de Winter. As a character she is a brilliant invention. But I wonder how the reader is so easily convinced of Max’s innocence, and how much that is a reaction to Mrs Danvers’s creepy and threatening presence.

Abbess of Crewe by Muriel Spark (1974) 

Mocking the great, is what Muriel Spark is about in this novel that is a parody of Richard Nixon’s downfall. Sister Alexandra, in white, corrupts and exploits the other sisters, in black. She records everything and is wittily exposed in this novel.

Beowulf

Grendel’s mother in the Anglo-Saxon poem Beowulf is portrayed as an ignorant hag-like creature, living in a pool of water-snakes, scarcely able to communicate with her son. Maddened by the death of her son at the hands of the first superhero, she is defeated in turn in her own cave. There is an alternative feminist version to this misogyny: The Mere Wife by Maria Dahvana Headley.

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte (1847) 

Jane’s aunt, Mrs Sarah Reed, resents the necessity for her orphaned niece to join her household and treats her very badly and banishes her to Lowood Hall School.

They Were Sisters by Dorothy Whipple (1943)

Three sisters are contrasted in this novel. One of these is Vera who is so beautiful that every door is opened to her, all difficulty smoothed out of her way, all misdemeanours forgiven, until she becomes middle-aged. She treats her husband with flagrant unkindness, and when he leaves her, looks round for another admirer. Her nemesis is age, and she is forced to face her weaknesses when her niece replaces her in a young man’s attentions. Vera is too weak to give up the young man and they run away to a life of more unhappiness in South Africa.

Hidden Qualities

Some apparently horrendous women are revealed to have hidden qualities.

 

Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout (2008) 

In the first volume of short stories of Olive Kitteridge, the former schoolteacher is revealed as a very flawed individual. But in the second volume, Olive, Again (2010), she has become quite sympathetic, perhaps because we understand her more. Is this the Dirty Den syndrome, whereby the audience loves a baddie if they experience enough of them?

The Door by Magda Szabo (1987) 

Translated from the Hungarian by Len Rix

Emerence acts as housekeeper to a novelist, choses her clients and behaves in what appears to be a high-handed even predatory manner, intimidating her clients and her neighbours. She is not so much redeemed as explained in this magnificent Hungarian novel. 

The Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Arnim (1922)

Mrs Fisher is definitely saved in this much-loved novel about four ill-assorted women who spend a month together in an Italian castle. She is saved through Italian sunshine and the sunny disposition of Lotty.

The Girl with the Louding Voice by Abi Daré (2020)

And now, meet Big Madam as 14-year-old Adunni meets her in Lagos.

The cool air inside the car is escaping with a strong flower smell as somebody is climbing out. First thing I am seeing is feets. Yellow feets, black toes. There is different colour paint on all the toenails: red, green, purple, orange, gold. The smallest of the toes is having a gold ring on it. Her whole body is almost filling the whole compound as she is coming out. I am now understanding why they are calling her Big Madam. When she come out, she draw deep breath and her chest, wide like a blackboard, is climbing up and down, up and down. It is as if this woman is using her nostrils to be collecting all the heating from the outside and making us be catching cold. I am standing beside Mr Kola, and his body is shaking like my own. Even the trees in the compound, the yellow, pink, blue flowers in the long flower pot, all of them are shaking. (122)

Big Madam enslaves Adunni, to work in her house, and to live in a shack in the compound. Adunni is valued by many of the people she meets, who help her achieve her ambitions – to do with the ‘louding’ voice – and to which Big Madam must eventually accede. 

The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine by Alina Bronsky (2010)

My Grandmother’s Braid by Alina Bronsky (2019)

Both novels were translated from the German by Tim Mohr

In both books there is a monstrous, interfering and overwhelming grandmother. Both behave in underhand and shocking ways, with lack of consideration for others. They are stories about unconditional love that is expressed in curious and sometimes hilarious ways.

Not yet categorised as monstrous

Guard your Daughters by Dorothy Tutton (1953)

The mother in this novel exerts control and limits her five daughter’s experiences to her own advantage. Is she monstrous?

Eva Trout by Elizabeth Bowen (1969)

The main character challenges many conventions about women, maternal feelings, obsession with appearance, desire to marry, and independent wealth. I am not sure I understand what the author was doing with this unlikely character, but I believe she is not monstrous.

You may have your own suggestions of monstrous female characters to add to this list?

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Filed under Books, Feminism, Older women in fiction, Reading, Reviews, Women in Translation, Women of Colour

The Girl with the Louding Voice by Abi Daré 

I have, in previous posts, declared that I would not read novels with ‘girl’ in the title. But I made an exception for this one because it was recommended by readers I respect, and because the main character is a girl. She is fourteen when the novel opens.

And being a girl of 14, it is shocking that the novel opens with the scene where Adunni’s father tells her that he has negotiated with Morufu for her to become his third wife. Her father will receive a generous bride price. This will end Adunni’s ambition to become a girl with a louding voice.

The Girl with the Louding Voice

Adunni is a girl of 14, brought up in Ikati, a village in rural Nigeria. She is the narrator of her story. Her mother died and she is left with two brothers and a father. The family are very poor, and Adunni has already had to give up primary school to take on her mother’s domestic duties. She has an ambition: to become a girl with a louding voice. Here louding means something like amplification, but also confidence. She explains her ambitions to her friend Ms Tia.

‘My mama say education will give me a voice. I want more than just a voice, Ms Tia. I want a louding voice,’ I say. ‘I want to enter a room and people will hear me even before I open my mouth to be speaking. I want to live in this life and help many people so when I grow old and die, I will still be living through the people I am helping. Think it, Ms Tia. If I can go to school and become a teacher, then I can collect my salary and maybe even build my own school in Ikati and be teaching the girls. The girls in my village don’t have much chance for school. I want to change that, Ms Tia, because those girls, they will grow up and born many more great people to make Nigeria even more better than now.’ (224)

On her marriage she goes to live in Morufu’s compound, where she finds his two wives and some daughters. Adunni must endure much for Morufu’s wish for a son. She makes friends with his second wife, Kadije. When Kadije is nearly ready to deliver her baby the two younger wives go to a nearby village apparently to consult with a midwife. But here disaster happens and Adunni must escape the village for ever.

She is trafficked to Lagos, where she works for no wages as a house girl for Big Madam. Here is her description of her first meeting with Big Madam as her employer gets out of her car.

First thing I am seeing is feets. Yellow feets, black toes. There is different colour paint in all the toenails: red, green, orange, purple, gold. The smallest of the toes is having a gold ring on it. Her whole body is almost filling the whole compound as she is coming out. I am now understanding why they are calling her Big Madam. When she come out, she draw deep breath and her chest, wide like blackboard, is climbing up and down, up and down. …
She take two step near to us, then I am seeing her face well. Her face is looking like one devil-child vex with her and paint it with his feets. On top of the orange powder on her face, there is a red line on the two both eyebrows which she is drawing all the way out to her ears. Green powder on the eyelids. Lips with gold lipstick, two cheeks full of red powder. (122-3)

At first it seems as if she has escaped from Ikati and the torments of her marriage to Morufu only to experience slave conditions in the household of the wealthy businesswoman. Her life is made more difficult by Big Papa, who tries to rape her. He is the most despicable of all the characters: he betrays Big Madam, even with her friend, seduces previous house girls, lives off Big Madam and has no job.

But while her time with Big Madam is difficult, she is befriended by Kofi, the Ghanaian cook, and Abu the Muslim driver. She also meets the neighbour, Ms Tia, who is not in the same mould as Big Madam and her rich friends. All three help Adunni to enter a competition for female domestic servants to receive a scholarship to study at school. The drama between Big Madam and Papa allows her eventual freedom.

A day will come when my voice will sound so loud all over Nigeria and the world of it, when I will be able to make a way for other girls to have their own louding voice because I know, that when I finish my education, I will find a way to help them go to school. (312)

Adunni’s story is a very engaging one. To start with she is very young and with few resources to face the obstacles to her ambition. But she has determination, and a very likeable honesty and has deeply rooted integrity. 

Additionally, the author has created a very appealing voice for her narrator. The malapropisms in her use of the English language, not her first language, draws attention to her naivety and her clear sightedness. The reader is forced to see the story from the point of view of an ill-educated but determined and intelligent young woman. Her own voice is louding because she describes the misogyny, the exploitation of young women, the lack of integrity she encounters in Lagos and pursues her ambitions with such determination.

Abi Daré

Abi Daré

Abi Daré was born in Lagos, Nigeria and moved to the UK for her university education. She now lives with her partner and children in Essex. The Girl with the Louding Voice is her first novel and has been well received. It was a New York Times bestseller, chosen as a Book at Bedtime for Radio 4. She was included in the Guardian’s list of 10 best debut novelists in 2020.

I look forward to more from Abi Daré.

The Girl with the Louding Voice by Abi Daré was published in 2020 by Sceptre. 314pp

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Filed under Books, Reading, Reviews, Women of Colour