Thursday, December 10, 2015
The title: Dietland
The author: Sarai Walker
Publication: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2015
Got it from: Hoopla Audiobooks
I actually finished listening to this book on audiobook a few weeks ago, and it has been running through my mind ever since. It's not the usual sort of book I read, but then again I don't think there's another book like it. I would never have picked it up except something about it piqued my interest from the reviews. That something is, "shadowy feminist group takes revenge against scumbag men."
But to say "that's what it's about" is to do a disservice to this book, because it's much more complicated than that. If I were to sum it up as succinctly as possible, I'd say it's about a self-loathing, obese twentysomething woman who goes on a journey of self-acceptance and opens her eyes to the reality of the world around her. If you read the reviews on Goodreads and elsewhere, you'll see this book has divided a lot of readers due to its strong feminist perspective.
I can imagine that if you're not already a hardcore feminist (as I am), some of the book's revelations about the way men treat women might seem shocking. But when you're talking about a scenario where women are kidnapping men who brutally rape a young woman (for example), and then dropping them on a freeway, the idea isn't supposed to be "is this right or wrong?" It's to take a look at the millions and millions of instances of injustices women have faced, and think, "what would it actually be like if even a tiny fraction of violence men do to us were turned on them?"
Men's rights activists can breath easy: that's not likely to happen any time soon. Even the novel's heroine, Plum, is shocked and horrified by the actions of the secret feminist action group, known as "Jennifer" (after a name on a piece of paper stuffed in a victim's mouth.) Well, she is at first - when she's a downtrodden, miserable hermit with a crappy dead-end job. If people take nothing else from this book, they will remember its depiction of the various ways Plum suffers because of her weight.
And it's brutal. I mean really, really brutal. This book holds nothing back in highlighting the shameful, disgraceful way our society, and particularly men, treat women who are overweight. Plum's journey is heartbreaking, from her unhappy childhood to her teenage suffering on an awful diet plan to her current life as the faceless agony aunt behind the "Dear Kitty" letters in a teen magazine. Seeing the various ways Plum gets rejected, harassed and even beaten by men who are complete strangers simply for being overweight is painful. No wonder she's desperate to have gastric bypass surgery and unleash the thinner "Alicia" she thinks is inside her.
The book takes a turn for the better when she gets taken in by a group of outcast activist women, led by Verena Baptist, the daughter of Plum's one-time weight-loss guru. Fans of mythic tropes will recognize many aspects of the hero's quest in the way Plum must undergo a series of challenges to transform herself (at first for money, later purely for her own benefit). Eventually, Plum is reborn. I won't spoil it for you, except to say that her eventual self-acceptance is long, painful and triumphant.
As for Jennifer? It didn't bother me. Some of the stunts they pulled were actually pretty funny: my favourite was when they blackmailed a British tabloid to replace the page three girl with naked men. Eventually England is covered in images of buff men and women flock from all over the world to see it.
I'm not even sure this book is actually condoning the violence, although these particular men largely deserve it. Instead, it's flipped the violence around in a way we're not used to seeing. As the main character in the wonderful movie Suffragette says, "We break windows, be burn things, because war is the only thing men listen to."
Sometimes in books, things get ugly. They show the world as it is, not as we want it to be. I hope it will be a revelation to any woman reading this novel that we should live our lives to please ourselves first. As one of my favourite Oscar Wilde sayings goes, "to love oneself is the beginning of a lifelong romance."