WITH A NEW INTRODUCTION BY SOPHIE MACKINTOSH, MAN BOOKER PRIZE-LONGLISTED AUTHOR OF THE WATER CURE
'A small miracle' The New York Times
'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 was beguiled initially by the cover of this book, then the title, then the recommendation by Megan Hunter (author of The End We Start From), and after that the description. Forty women in an underground bunker with no clear understanding of their captivity. Why are they there? What was their life before? And as the years pass, what purpose do the guards, or those who employ the guards, have for them? The narrator of this story is a young woman—captured as a very young child—who knows no past: her life is the bunker. The women she lives with tolerate her but have little to do with her and hardly converse with her. She is not one of them. They have murky memories of being wives, mothers, sisters, workers. They know something catastrophic happened but can not remember what. The Child (nameless) is seen as other, not like them, not from the same place as them. The Child has been passing the days and the years in acceptance, knowing nothing else, but her burgeoning sexuality and her awareness of life beyond the cage (she starts to watch the guards, one young man in particular), limited as it is to this stark underground environment, also triggers an awakeness. She begins to think, to wonder and ask questions. As she counts the time by listening to her heartbeats and wins the trust of a woman in the group, The Child’s observations, not clouded by memories, are pure and exacting. We, as readers, are no closer to understanding the dilemma the women find themselves in, and like them are mystified by the situation. Our view is only that of The Child and what she gleans from the women—their past lives that are words that have little meaning to her, whether that is nature (a flower), culture (music) or social structures (work, relationships)—this world known as Earth is a foreign landscape to her. When the sirens go off one day, the guards abandon their positions and leave. Fortunately for the women, this happens just as they have opened the hatch for food delivery. The young woman climbs through and retrieves a set of keys that have been dropped in the panic. The women are free, but what awaits them is in many ways is another prison. Following the steps to the surface takes them to a barren plain with nothing else in sight. What is this place? Is it Earth? And where are the other people? Will they find their families or partners or other humans? The guards have disappeared within minutes—we never are given any clues to where they have gone—have they vapourised? Have they left in swift and silent aircraft? The women gather supplies, of which there are plenty, and begin to walk. I Who Have Never Known Men is a feminist dystopia in the likes of The Handmaid’s Tale or The Book of the Unnamed Midwife but is more silent, more internal and both frustrating and compelling. I found myself completely captivated by the mystery of this place and the certainty of the young woman. The exploration of humanity and its ability to hope and love within what we would consider a bleak environment, and the magnitude of one woman to gather these women to her and cherish them as they age is exceedingly tender. The introduction by Sophie MacKintosh ( author of The Water Cure), which I recommend reading after rather than before, adds another layer of meaning to the novel. I Who Have Never Known Men is haunting and memorable—a philosophical treatise on what it is to be alone and to be lonely, and what freedom truly is.