Books: The witch report on girl power

Julie Wheelwright falls under the spell of some mythic femmes fatales
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The Independent Culture

by Shahrukh Husain

Virago, pounds 15.99, 212pp

THERE IS a palpable backlash now against the feminist argument that violence is largely the by-product of a patriarchical society and women are its main victims. Patricia Pearson, another Virago author, has just written a polemic against our ingrained belief that women are the gentle sex. Media reports on girl gangs and "natural born" female killers in Paris appear to support Pearson's thesis. Our desire for such femmes fatales persists despite the fact that women consistently commit only 12 per cent of homicides in England and Wales.

The debate over women's agency in violent crime is rooted in a profound ambivalence, according to Shahrukh Husain, a psychotherapist and former film censor. After books on witches and female cross-dressers, she now explores our interest in such temptresses. Violent women are almost invariably sexualised, she argues: "Men are simultaneously petrified and enthralled by woman's dual capacity for ruthlessness and nurturing."

Husain supplies a panoply of wicked mythical women in stories moulded by her psychotherapeutic lens. The stories are pure fantasy, writ large against a background of raw emotions and psychic torments; the characters dressed up as gods, fairies and mystical powers. I usually find this genre soporific but these stories are compelling and, in parts, offer unexpected wisdom.

All of Husain's temptresses represent an irresistible life force in rebellion against male authority. There are many renditions of Eve here including Lilith, the cradle-snatching spirit banished from Paradise. We meet the figures men secretly fear and whom women secretly admire. The murderous Medea is reinvented as a misunderstood politician. When Jason threatens to leave her, she gives her sons a magic potion to make them appear dead, and then whisks them off to sanctuary.

And the first temptress is recast as an intellectual married to a duffer, Adam. "The trouble with Eve was that she asked too many questions. But they just kept coming, those questions, flooding into her head from a great silvery ocean of chaos". At times these creak rather than soar and vamp. But in spite of some patchy writing, this is a highly readable retelling of ancient myths suffused with the modern conundrums of relationships between the sexes.