There cannot be a corner of the world, from New England to the Philippines, which has not produced its own example of the story-telling feminist novel during the past 10 years. Wherever women are gathered, it seems, they can't wait to get down to some communal craft work or cooking over which they gradually give up the story of their lives. And that story is remarkably similar, regardless of class, race or place. There is a fretful mother, an impotent husband, a dead baby and the scents and rhythms of strangeness. From Laura Esquivel's Mexico to Amy Tan's China, there are sprites who bite, gods who make the dough rise and bad men in the woods.
The story-telling genre has served feminism well. Its commitment to breaking down official histories has created genuinely new voices. Its loving interest in domesticity (all those kitchen scenes and re-visitings of Penelope's loom) brought hidden experiences to light.
These three novels all belong to the second generation of the genre, and their confidence and subtlety shows. In Tamarind Mem, the India which old Saroja criss-cross by train is made up of a babble of tongues, faiths and cultures. In Getting Rid Of It, Mauritius is a hotch-potch of Asians, Africans, Whites, Catholics and Muslims where a rigid bureaucracy imposes its latter-day Napoleonic code. The "It" is the remains not of abortion but unwanted miscarriage. So determined are the authorities to clamp down on backstreet botches, there is no legal space for a girl who spontaneously loses her foetus. Jumila, Sadna and Goldilox Soo try to figure out how to dispose of the slop without people getting wrong ideas.
Australian writer Marele Day, meanwhile, does something different in Lambs of God. Three old nuns are all that is left of a remote island community. By day they tend their flock of sheep, in which the souls of their departed sisters reside, and the rest of the time they knit and tell stories: of half-remembered fairy tales, corrupted Catholic liturgy and lamb-keeping lore.
Along comes a smart young priest, crisp and modern and with not a natural fibre on him. Father Ignatius is on a recce to see if the island is viable for development into a leisure complex. The sisters capture him, put him in the holding pen and shear him. As the sheep-ish Ignatius tries to escape, the stage is set for a clash between diocesan bureaucracy and feral Catholicism.
Lambs of God is clever, sexy and wears its debt to Muriel Spark with good-humoured grace. Together, these novels represent a cresting of the feminist story-telling novel. Very soon all stories will be told, all voices heard. The question then will be what happens next.Reuse content