Saturday, 8 October 2016

An Unkindness Of Ravens: Ruth Rendell

An Unkindness Of Ravens: by Ruth Rendell

My rating: 1 of 5 stars

First Ruth Rendell read for personal reasons. Did not like the book nor the detective. Even though i picked it up because i had been told that it was about a staunch feminist group functioning underground, the book turned out to be of nothing of the sort. There was no feminism at all. On the contrary i found it very misogynistic and patriarchal in its story, approach and even language.

The man who in the beginning of the book is reported missing had a reputation. This we get to know from the conversation inspector Wexford has with his wife, Dora. 

'I'll tell you something I was scared to tell you at the time. I thought you might do something violent.'

'Sure, he said. 'I've always been so wild and free with my fists. What are you on about?'

'He made a pass at Sylvia.'

She said it defiantly. Standing there in the long red dress holding the sherry glass, her eyes suddenly wide and wary, she looked astonishingly young.

'So?' His elder daughter was thirty, married twelve years, and the mother of two tall sons. 'She's an attractive woman. I daresay men do make passes at her and no doubt she can take care of herself.'

Dora gave him a sidelong look. 'I said I was scared to tell you. She was fifteen at the time.'

Firstly, i noticed the way the author describes women by making elaborate comments about their clothes and most of the time, age, appearance and bodies. Women who have become agents of patriarchy have a major role in establishing norms and they inevitably turn out to be patriarchal. Ruth Rendall, throughout the book speaks the language of patriarchy. Look at the way the inspector or is it the author? who makes a mental note of how young Dora looked. And the man's explanation to the sexual harassment that his daughter faced? It is that she is an attractive woman! I don't know how many times feminists will have to yell on rooftops that sexual harassment is not about looks or beauty. It is about power and violence and gender. This was only the beginning of things which were wrong with the book. 

Another portion where a man was attacked by a woman in his car after he had given a lift to her, there is a reason given for them not having contacted the police.

It was his wife who had dissuaded him on the grounds that if the police were called the conclusion they would reach would be that Wheatley had first made some sort of assault on the girl.

That sounds like bullshit to me. So what is the author trying to say? Whenever a woman makes a complaint it will be assumed by default that the woman was attacked first and everything that was done was done in self defense? Then it would have been so so so easy for people like us who have had to fight sexual harassment tooth and nail all the time yelling on top of our voices that we are not lying because that was what we were mostly accused of. Are the police stupid or is the author?

Pitting women against women has been patriarchy's weapon for the longest time. We can see many instances of it in the book. The mysterious case of Jenny's pregnancy [which was not mysterious to me at all, from the look of things i knew what was 'wrong' with the baby] tells us that she, not Burden, the father was upset that she was going to have a girl. Burden is a little relieved when he gets to know that his wife has started taking a psychiatrist's help. He tells her

'Don't let him give you drugs.'

'It's a woman.'

She wanted to scream with laughter. The irony of it! She was a teacher and this other woman was a psychiatrist and Mike's daughter Pat was very nearly qualified as a dentist, yet here she was reacting like a no-account junior wife in a harem. Because the baby was a girl.

I am at a loss to decide what is meant by this that i quoted. no-account junior wife in a harem? Seriously? Throughout the book i never understood why this woman was upset with having a baby girl. Nor did her innocent husband [who seems to assume all psychiatrists are men in the earlier conversation]. So that is why the book says

In vain he had asked why this prejudice against girls, she who was a feminist, a supporter of the women's movement, who expressed a preference for her friends' small girls over their small sons, who got on better with her stepdaughter than her stepson, who professed to prefer teaching girls to boys.
She didn't know why, only that it was so. Her preganancy, so long desired, at first so ecstatically accepted, had driven her mad. The worst of it was that he was coming to hate the unborn child himself and to wish it had never been conceived.

Did that make any sense? It was helpful because i got to know that like many women and others the author had no clue what feminism is about. She further elaborates with this rant that Burden does in a bar soon after.

'It's not that she's anti-girls usually,' Burden said. 'For God's sake, she's a feminist. I mean, it's not some stupid I-must-have-an-heir thing or every-woman's-got-to-have-a-son-to-prove-herself. In fact I think she secretly thinks women are better than men - I mean cleverer and more versatile, all that. She says she doesn't understand it herself. She says she had no feelings about the child's sex one way or the other, but when they told her, when she knew, she was - well, dismayed. That was at first. It's got worst. It's not just dismay now, it's hatred.'...

'...She says that ever since the world began sons have been preferred over daughters and now it's become part of race memory, what she calls the collective unconscious.'

'What Jung called it.'

Her justification made no sense to me even though i like Jung's terminology and what it means. I hope that everyone else knows that stating that one's a feminist a lot of times does not make you a feminist. The author didn't seem to know it. You cannot be pissed just because you are going to have a girl baby and still call yourself a feminist. Collective unconscious or not. 

From time to time we get glimpses of the sexist nature of our inspector. My guess is that, these revelations were planted so that in the end people go 'he was right all the while with his sexism' because SPOILER ALERT the killer is a woman. 

'I was at work. Thursday's our late night. I didn't tell you, did I? I'm manageress of the fashion floor at Jickie's.'

He was surprised. Somehow he had taken it for granted she didn't work...

From the beginning the inspector has certain 'opinions' about this 'other' home of the dead man. [The dead man had two wives. One legal an another illegal, both with kids] From the way the woman dresses to the way she keeps her home, the inspector has to make a comment or a mental note which makes no sense whatsoever. For example, 

Wexford thought how easy it was to imagine Rodney Williams - or his idea of Rodney Williams - in his other home but next to impossible to imagine him here. Seated at that glass-topped dining table, for instance, with its bowl of pink and red roses or in one of those pink chintz armchairs. He had been a big coarse man and everything here ahd a daintiness like a pink shell or the inside of a rose.

I mean, seriously, the author is still stuck with pink = girl,dainty?

In another instance,

In this house Williams had had no desk, only a drawer in the gilt-handed white melamine chest of drawers. This had been Wendy's house, no doubt about it, the sanctum where Wendy held sway. Girlish, fragile, soft-voiced though she might be, she had made this place her own, feminine and exclusive - exclusive in a way of Rodney Williams. He had been there or sufferance, Wexford sensed, his presence depending on his good behaviour...So Wendy had made a home full of flowers and colours and silk cushions inw hich he was allotted small corners as if - unconsciously, he was sure it was unconsciously - she knew the day would come when it would be for herself and her daughter alone.

To this i ask, 'So?'
Wendy is sometimes punished for this way of dressing too. In the following portion we can see the inspector trying to make it clear that he was being nice to the woman by not torturing her. Wow. Such benevolence.
Wendy was crying. She said she was cold. It was true that the weather had turned very cold for the time of year but she should have been prepared for that, sacrificed vanity and brought a coat. He thought of all the places in the world and all the policemen in them where Wendy would have been allowed to shiver, where the temperature would have been lowered if possible, a little hypothermia encouraged. You couldn't call it torture, cooling someone into admissions... 

But don't think that his opinions are restricted to the 'younger' wife. The man has an opinion about even the laughter of the other wife, Joy. See here

'...She gave that bitter laugh of hers. If I'd had to live with that laugh it would have got horribly on my nerves.'

Was inspector Wexford living with that laugh? No. Then what the fuck was it to him! What is he trying to say, that it was perhaps justified by this woman's laugh that the dead husband married another woman and begat a child? Wow. This Wexford man gets on my nerves really. He is like the quintessential mallu male. Has to pass a comment on everything which does not concern him.

If you are a police officer and your job requires you to observe young women playing badminton, you might be questioned. Of course if you keep staring at girls that way you should be questioned. And may be that's why when there are women involved, women cops are always required? Now see what the conversation between these two cops observing young girls playing tennis/badminton [i forget] looks like.

'What would you think if you saw two middle-aged women watching young men playing squash?'

Burden looked sideways at him.

'Well, nothing, would I? I mean, I'd think they were their mothers or just women who liked watching sport.'

'Exactly. Doesn't that tell you something? Two things? One is that, whatever the women's movement says, there is a fundamental difference between men and women in their attitude to sex, and the other that this is an area in which women might claim - if it's occurred to them - to be superior to us.'

I'll tell you what else we can claim. That what you just said is horseshit. If middle aged men watching women are looked at suspiciously it is because middle aged men have, for a long time looked at girls like that and done things to them. And no, you cannot look at women like that without being questioned. That's what the women's movement that you so mock from time to time have made possible. You are just cranky because you lost your 'freedom' which was not freedom to begin with of looking at women whenever you please and for however long you pleased. Alright? By the way, there is no question of if something has occurred to us. All serious stuff occur to us.

Wendy later gives some 'motherly' advice to her daughter. ARRIA, the underground feminist group is constantly under scrutiny by these male detectives. What even teenagers can understand they can't apparently. 

'Why girls?' he said. 'Haldon Finch is co-ed. Don't any boys belong?'...

'Well, it's all women, isn't it? It's for women. They're - what d'you call it? - feminists, militant feminists.'
'Then I hope you'll keep clear of it, Veronica,' Wendy said very quickly and sharply for her. 'I hope you'll have nothing to do with it. If there's anything I really hate it's women's lib. Liberation! I'm liberated and look where it's got me. I just hope you'll do better than I have when the time comes and find a man who'll really support you and look after you, a nice good man who'll - who'll cherish you.' Her lips trembled with emotion. She laid down her sewing. 'I wasn't enough of a woman for Rodney,' she said as if the girl wasn't there. 'I wasn't enough of a girl. I got too hard and independent and - and mature, I know i did.' A heroic effort was made to keep the tears in, the break out of the voice, and a victory was won. 'You just remember that, Veronica, when your turn comes.'

Now can someone please tell me what Wendy's husband turning out to be a con man or dead has anything to do with women's liberation? Does Wendy realize when she wallows in self pity that that is exactly what women's liberation has helped women not do? Make them realize one's self esteem has got nothing to do with how old you are or how much of a 'woman' you are?

Author continues with her stupid descriptions of women as seen through the eyes of the male inspector. 

...Wendy Williams came down the spiral staircase, walking slowly, giving him a voyeur's look if he had wanted it of shapely legs in very fine pale tights all the way up to a glimpsed border of cream lace. He wasn't looking, but out of the corner of his eye he saw her hold her skirt down as if he had been.
...Wendy had a pretty cotton dress on, the kind that needs a lot of ironing, a wide black patent belt to show she still had an adolescent waist and red wedge-heeled shoes that pinched where they touched.

I am still trying to figure out what a 'voyeur's look' is and what the necessity of this paragraph was in the book.

His own wife too is described the same way. The author has something for waists.

He lay down beside her and the last thing he remembered before sleeping was laying his hand on her still-slender waist.
Our detective, however is kind of happy in a patronizing way about how
women were at last taking steps to defend themselves against the muggings and rapes which in the past few years had so disproportionately increased.

The usage 'at last' makes it worse. As though it is our fault that we waited till the rapes reached this proportion. And self defense itself indicates inequality, for me. 

 Meanwhile Burden's wife gives birth to a boy and now all is well with the family. And what does the author have to say about this? Nothing much, except some more shit on feminism.

Jenny says it's taught her a lot about herself. It's taught her she's not what you might call a natural feminist and now she has to approach feminism not from an emotional standpoint but from what is - well, right and just. We didn't know, either of us, what a lot of deep-rooted old-fashioned prejudices we had. Because I felt it too, you know, I also wanted a son though I never said...

So feminism changes on what you have. A boy child or a girl child. If they had had a girl child it would have all continued the same and the girl would have had to go through hell for not having born a guy? What a nasty way to 'realize' how to approach feminism.

There is an alarming statement in the rules of this militant feminist group and i am sure it has been put there to make people go 'what the fuck' and despise the whole group.

'...Rule 10: Women wishing to reproduce should select the potential father for his physique, health, height, etc., and ensure impregnation in a rape or near-rape construct.'
I couldn't make any sense of it. I am not sure if the author herself knew what she was writing when she was writing it. But i have a hunch because a little later these middle aged police people say:
'It's tempting,' he said to Burden, 'to think of a group of those ARRIA girls grabbing hold of poor old Williams like the Maenads with Orpheus and doing him in on the Lesbian shore.'
It's male fantasy and that's why it has been put there. And yet we are the ones who get accused of 'liking', 'inviting' 'enjoying' rape. Phew! 
Later ARRIA members are accused of 'inviting' trouble. One of the girls even says that she once deliberately created a situation in which men would attempt something. But the way the young women is questioned gives a lot of insight into what the inspector himself think of such crimes. In this one the girl was assumed to be a sex worker by a man whom she later attacked. 

'Not that there's anything wrong with being a prostitute. That's OK, that's fine if that's where youu're at. It's just the way men assume...'

'Only some men.'

'A lot[...]'

'Why did you ask him for a lift? To provoke exactly the sort of situation that arose?'

Yeah. That's what all women do. Provoke, attack and then feel good about it. Because to be harassed is so much fun, you know. The girl even has to justify herself later on due to the inspector's unabashed victim blaming.

'I didn't do that. I didn't do anything but go for a walk in the wood. I wasn't provocatively dressed.'...The only thing I did to provoke anyone was be there and be a woman.'

Now i'll come to the part i found the most disgusting. This dead man, Rodney Williams was known to have 'a thing' for young women. SPOILER ALERT

From the time the author told us that he had such an 'interest' i had started weaving a narrative in which one of his daughters had killed him because he made passes at them or worse [like how he had made passes at the inspector's fifteen year old]. My guess turned out to be true in between when one of the wives said that her daughter had been raped by her father. Only, it was said in the most horrendous possible way. The girl was hated by her mother because she saw her own daughter as someone who 'stole' her husband away. But we are talking about rape here. 

'She came and told me. Her own mother! His own wife! She said he'd come into her bedroom in the middle of the night. He said he was cold, he never seemed to get warm since we'd slept in twin beds. That's what he said to her. He said she could make him warm. Why didn't she scream out? Why didn't she run away? He got into the bed with her and did it to her. I'm not going to repeat the word she used, they all use it for that. It was while I was asleep. I was asleep and he was doing that with his own daughter.'

'...I said of course I was upset. No mother wants to her her daughter's like that, does she?

'Well, we know he was. But he'd never have done that without...'
'Encouragement?' he said flatly.
She nodded impatiently. 'Putting her arm round him, trying to get his attention, she wasn't ten. I said to her, you're not ten anymore. Sitting on his knee - what did you expect? Now the least you can do is keep quiet about it, I said, think of my feelings for a change.'

So it's her daughter Sara's fault that she was raped by her father. I thought the word she refuses to use is 'rape' but later i got to know it is 'fuck'. I am assuming 'like that' meant someone who slept with her father or elder people. Earlier in the book she had hinted something like that to the inspector when he had asked if he could go up to Sara's room to question her. And she had provoked her father by sitting on his knee and putting her arm round him. I think, by the same logic, even my cats can be said to have been provoked by me. Pathetic!
Now when it comes to the other family, which also has a female child Veronica whom Sara alerts of her father's behaviour there is is a sentence in the book which summarises what the author's take on rape is. 

Rodney would serve Veronica the same way as he had served Sara. An unfortunate verb in the circumstances, but perhaps not inept... 

Serve? Rape is the word you are looking for.
Sara, her daughter, throughout the novel is described in a rather peculiar way which struck me even before the novel told me that she is the killer. The girl aspires to be a doctor and that is something our inspector doesn't approve of.

A hard, neurortic little go-getter, he thought of her, without an atom of concern for her mother whom the police suspected of murdering her father. 

In the same vein,

Nor would she care when her mother was arrested for the murder. But perhaps it was natural for victims of incest not to care much about anything. He felt a wrench of pity for her.
Now look at this portion where the inspector is questioning her about the rape.

'Why didn't you tell your brother? Or did you? I have a feeling you and your brother are close.'
'Yes, we are. In spite of everything.' She didn't say in spite of what but he thought he knew. 'I couldn't tell him.' Like a different girl speaking, her face turned away, 'I was ashamed.'
And she hates her mother, so it was a pleasure to tell her?

See how the inspector puts words into her mouth and goes on with the 'why didn't you tell your brother/best friend/uncle/aunt rant. But soon you'' understand that all this treatment meted out to the young girl is justified because she is the murderer. A serial killer psychopath. That she has no feelings was already established earlier anyway. Ambitious girl as she is...This is the biggest crime that the book does. First say that there is a rape and then in the end say that the woman was lying. As if we don't have enough of such testimonies from patriarchy and victim blaming episodes. Phew. Thanks for this.

'Sara Williams doesn't have normal feelings of affection, need for love, loneliness. I think she would be labelled a psychopath. She wants attention and she wants to impress. Also she wants her own way. I imagine that what she got from her half-sister was principally admiration. Sara has an excellent brain. Intellectually, she's streets ahead of Veronica. She's a strong, powerful, amoral, unfeeling solipsist with an appalling temper.'
Crocker's eyebrows went up. 'You're talking about an eightern-year-old who was raped by her own father.'

But guess what? She wasn't, right? Being the attention seeking psychopath she is, she made that story up. That's the easiest way to get attention as far as women are concerned. Say that you were raped. When terrorist attacks happen i have never heard anyone say that they did it to get attention. Why? Oh yeah, rape is silly. Terrorism is not.

And what about the dead man, the father who did not rape his attention seeking psychopath daughter? 

'...You see, Rodney Williams never committed incest with his elder daughter. He never showed signs of committing incest with his younger daughter. And I very much doubt if he ever sexually assaulted anyone, even in the broadest meaning of that term.'
Clean chit. One girl who accused him of rape was lying anyway.
The doctor began outlining Freud's 'seduction theory' as expressed in the famous paper of 1896.

Seriously, still stuck with Freud? Move on, patriarchy.

Thirteen women patients of Freud claimed paternal seduction. Freud believed them, built on his evidence a theory, later abandoned it, realizing he had been too gullible. Instead, he concluded that little girls are prone to fantasize that their fathers have made love to them, from which developed his stress on childhood fantasy and ultimately his postulation of the Oedipus Complex.
'You're saying it was all fantasy on Sara's part?' Burden said. 'She's not exactly a little girl.'
'Nor were Freud's patients little girls by the time they came to him'.
'...I can tell you it never happened to Sara. She isn't the kind of girl to whom it happens. She isn't ignorant or obstuse or cowed or dependent. This seduction, or apparent seduction, followed a classic pattern laid down in the books. The girl doesn't struggle or fight or scream. She doesn't want to make a disturbance. At the first opportunity she tells her mother and mother reacts with rage, reproaches, accusations of the girl's provocative behaviour. Now Joy, as we might expect, fitted beautifully into the classic pattern. But Sara? If it had really happened wouldn't Sara, a leading member of ARRIA, a militant feminist, have fought and screamed? She was very handy with a knife, wasn't she? And she's the last person to care about making a disturbance in the household, either emotional or physical. As for telling her mother - Sara tell her mother? There's been no real communication between them for years. She despises her mother. If she'd told anyone it would have been her brother Kevin. No, there was no seduction, for if there had been she would have kept the experience secret to use against her father, not come running with it to Joy.

The amount of victim blaming for 'not being the kind of girl who gets raped', 'what happened to her fiery feminist voice', 'why didn't she fight?' and other such nonsense made me go back centuries in time. Are our whodunnits still stuck there? As though that was not enough, there is a remark by the father who did not rape the militant feminist daughter that justifies the villain quality of the ambitious girl. The detective thinks in his head,

So perhaps Rodney was right when he told Sara she was an unsuitable candidate for medical school. Who knows? Perhaps it wasn't simply meanness with him, he wasn't quite the bastard you make out. Perhaps he sensed in that daughter of his, without ever examining his conclusions, traits in her character that were abnormal, that were destructive, and it was to these he referred when he said she would never make a doctor.' 

The only relief in the book was this part which reminded me of my cat Pinchu who does the same thing. 

...Wexford's daughter Sylvia had a cat which uttered soundless mews, going through the mouth-stretching motion of mewing only. Veronica's 'hello' reminded him of that cat,...

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