A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
Jeanne Ray’s novel Calling Invisible Women is a stealth genre bender.
I loved this novel. I started reading it after I buckled my seat belt for a two-hour flight, and was still reading after we’d landed, instead of hauling my coat out of the overhead locker. When I reached the hotel I insisted on finishing the book before doing anything else. What more could I say? It’s a gentle winner.
Here’s the plot: Clover Hobart is a doctor’s wife, the mother of two adult children, and is struggling to accept that her journalistic days are over, in that order. She wakes up invisible (spot the metaphor), like, not seeable at all, and has to make some big changes in her lifestyle. The first is to adapt to being invisible. After that, she goes on to learn about using her invisibility, and lead a campaign to force Big Pharma to take the drugs off the shelves that have inflicted this condition on the menopausal women of suburban America. It’s a great story, with believable, memorable characters and situations, in snappy, sensible, sharp writing, and has an excellent overall point to think about afterwards. Calling Invisible Women has also been endorsed by Oprah’s O magazine, which will give it a huge boost.
But I was annoyed to find a ‘Reader’s Guide’ for book groups slipped in at the back, with inane questions about my personal experiences and how they matched those of the heroine. I can be my own ‘Reader’s Guide’ without the help of a patronising marketing department, thank you. I’m also bothered by the segregation of fiction encouraged by such marketing. By accepting choices made for them by publishers, book groups are being shoved gently into reading a particular type of fiction, or memoir, instead of choosing for themselves. They lose out on serendipity and the obscure, and are scared away from books with a label that screams edgy, difficult, wacko. When did your book group last read some science fiction, for instance?
Of course, I’m making the gross generalisation here that book groups that make their choices consensually tend to avoid science fiction. I know mine does, and I read a feature recently in a UK newspaper saying this was so. But here’s the irony: Calling Invisible Women is a thought-provoking and challenging science fiction novel, but it’s marketed for middle-aged women in book groups, possibly because they might be put off if the SF-word was mentioned. Instead, the central premise – what happens when a woman becomes invisible, and how does it change her world – is breezily passed over so that the blurb can dwell on how awful Clover must feel when her husband and children don’t notice that they can’t see her. That part is certainly important, but it isn’t anything like as interesting for me as the effect of her new-found invisibility. On the one hand, it acts as a metaphor for society’s indifference to women over the age of 45: in this novel, it means cast aside, ignored, pretty much shown that they have no more use or interest. On the other hand, her invisibility turns Clover into a neighbourhood wise woman, school bus vigilante, foiler of bank robberies, and protector of adult sons with pride issues. These are very local, personal concerns for a character who likes her domesticity. They’ll ring true to any woman reading who doesn’t like what she sees her community turning into and doesn’t know what to do about it.
Invisibility opens Clover’s eyes to the condition of many other women in her situation, and it gives her a sense of community. She learns new radical behaviour: to board a plane naked without the humiliating rigmarole of body searches and screening, simply because no-one can see her. The moment of terror when she loses her colleague Jane, also invisible, on enemy territory, is a reminder of the disadvantages of being invisible, but basic common sense gets them out of that hole. They are mothers, after all; they know what the drill is if anyone gets lost.
I don’t know if Jeanne Ray had read H G Wells’ The Invisible Man (and if she hadn’t before she wrote this novel, I bet she has by now: the parallel is so obvious). She tackles the same problems that Wells ran into while working through the practical effects of being invisible. Clover doesn’t feel the cold, despite her necessary nakedness, whereas Wells’ Invisible Man really suffered from not being able to wear boots or a coat, without all the other wrappings to conceal his lack of skin. Clover also doesn’t feel very hungry, so she can take food from her visible friend’s plate without anyone suffering unduly. The Invisible Man spends far too much of his time scrounging for food. The Invisible Man caused chaos among animals, but Clover’s dog still loves her, so that avoids a lot of mystery barking. The Invisible Man is hunting desperately for an antidote to return him to visibility but he doesn’t know which of his experiments did the damage. Clover works out what has caused her invisibility, but she doesn’t seem too bothered about regaining her visibility: she’s begun a nationwide campaign to make all women visible, reiterated in the novel by her covert acts of social justice towards underpaid and overworked women in the service industries.
The only thing that bugged me about the novel was the way the men suddenly became indispensable in the denouement, after being no help at all when Clover really needed a bit of acknowledgement. If Clover and her friends in the invisible women’s group work all the critical points out themselves, why could they not spearhead the publicity campaign too, instead of letting her clever son Nick do all the whizzy computer work? Maybe she was graciously allowing Nick to find a purpose in life (he certainly couldn’t see it staring him in the face), thus encouraging family harmony. Maybe Jeanne Ray has a soft spot for very young men: her Nick, Vlad and Benny are the most enjoyable secondary characters in the novel, apart from Clover’s monumentally self-centred daughter Evie. Whatever: it’s a great read, a fine science fiction novel, and will give a lot of imaginative pleasure to readers who occasionally feel invisible, no matter what the mirror says.
Jeanne Ray, Calling Invisible Women (2012, Random House, $14.00), ISBN 978-0-307-39506-1
Kate podcasts every fortnight about the books that make her squawk with excitement, on http://www.reallylikethisbook.com.