Tuesday, 14 May 2019

I Who Have Never Known Men by Jacqueline Harpman


I Who Have Never Known Men by Jacqueline Harpman
First published in French as Moi qui n'ai pas connu les hommes by Editions Stock in 1995. English language translation by Ros Schwartz published by The Harvill Press in 1997 and now republished by Vintage in May 2019.

How I got this book:
Received a review copy from the publisher via NetGalley

My rating: 4 of 5 stars



‘For a very long time, the days went by, each just like the day before, then I began to think, and everything changed’

Deep underground, thirty-nine women live imprisoned in a cage. Watched over by guards, the women have no memory of how they got there, no notion of time, and only vague recollection of their lives before.

As the burn of electric light merges day into night and numberless years pass, a young girl - the fortieth prisoner - sits alone and outcast in the corner. Soon she will show herself to be the key to the others' escape and survival in the strange world that awaits them above ground.

I Who Have Never Known Men is a disturbingly haunting story. A woman recounts her life to us although, from her earliest memories until the time she finds pen, paper and the inclination to write, she has no idea where she is or why she is there. As readers, we have no idea either. We are told of her immediate surroundings - of the cage and the other women locked inside it - in detail. We learn of the deprivations of their daily lives and of the silent guards forever pacing up and down. We know that the women originally lived in a society like ours because they remember it, but where the girl came from, nobody knows. Are they all caged for their own protection or as a punishment? Is there anyone else? Anywhere?

Harpman's writing is perfect for this novel. Her skill in being able to tell an utterly compelling story while leaving out practically all the background information is genius! In the hands of a lesser author I would no doubt be bemoaning gaping plot holes or inconsistent information, but here our narrator's questioning of her circumstances exactly reflected my questioning and drew me towards her rather than pushing me away. At several points I paused to put myself into her position. How would I react?

I Who Have Never Known Men is all about our inner lives as women, how we find a purpose for ourselves and what we can achieve when we need to. I would not have been surprised if this novel had been written immediately post-war. I felt it had that sense about it - of escaping extreme trauma, of realising that survival isn't the end, it isn't enough. The dystopian emptiness of this land is terrifying, especially as the women become fewer in number, and its portrayal is also extremely timely. The current rate of species extinction on Earth means Harpman's imagined desolation might not be so far away after all.


Search Literary Flits for more:
Books by Jacqueline Harpman / Science fiction / Books from Belgium

6 comments:

  1. Sounds amazing, thank you for posting.

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    1. It's a hauntingly strange novel. Quite a different take on the dystopian genre

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  2. Thank you to introduction the interesting book

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  3. Wow, this one sounds so dark and haunting. And like the author was perfectly able to understand that atmosphere and translate it into her writing. I am glad you were able to get sucked into this story and really wonder what you would have done in the same situations.

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    1. I knew practically nothing about the book or author before reading and so this was an unexpected delight. A good read for aspiring authors I think as it has a unique way of presenting situations and characters

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