I’m a woman and a mother of two young girls.
Trying to strike a constant balance between teaching them kindness and that ‘no’ is a complete sentence, between finding joy in their autonomy and teaching them to be wary, all through the lens of a 33-year-old female experience is, frankly, debilitating.
I dread the day that I look into their eyes and see that knowing that all women share and all women recognise. I don’t know what to do about it. If there’s anything I can do about it. If this is simply a sad rite of passage for women and girls.
The Seawomen by Chloe Timms gave me a space to explore some of these disquieting concerns.
Esta is raised by her formidable grandmother on the remote, self-governed island of Eden. Eden’s citizens are bound by its stringent religious laws and customs. Frightening is the public consequences for any who are even perceived to be in transgression. And the accused are always women.
A woman must marry the man chosen for her. And she must conceive a child within her allocated motheryear. The island accepts any failure to conceive as a sure sign from God that she (not her husband, just she) has been corrupted by The Seawomen, mysterious sea-dwellers believed to entice Eden’s women into helping them take over the island for untold evils.
Condemned women are bound to boats and forsaken to drown in the sea in an act called The Untethering. Indulging in vanity, not praying enough and even gazing out to sea are judged as omens.
As Esta uncovers one shocking truth after another about the island, its piety, its patriarchy and the Seawomen themselves, she reckons with danger, internalised dogma and her own heart. In a battle between safety and freedom, Esta must decide what each is ultimately worth.
The Seawomen presents a timely conversation on true societal freedom, why women are centred as objects of control and what each of us overlooks in the name of keeping our places in our respective communities, however uncomfortable the realities of those places may be.
Through the characters of Barrett, Esta’s father and Ingram, Chloe Timms expertly highlights the plight that men also suffer at the hands of patriarchy. However, these are collateral shockwaves borne from the epicentre of devastation inflicted on individual women’s lives in the first place.
Timms shows us it doesn’t start with the worst acts of brutality imaginable. It starts with words and ideas unquestioned, nonsensical attitudes adopted uncritically, fear of being outcast from a group amplified and played upon (this is a theme I also discussed in my review of The Spirit Engineer by A.J. West).
It is frustrating to engage in public discourse around violence against women and girls to be met with “not all men” and “women are violent too”. The Seawomen is the perfect work to encourage defensive minds to peel back further layers.
The conversation is not intended to be accusatory (although it can feel that way when viewed through the lens of limited characters and intended maximum emotional impact on Twitter).
It is meant to encourage society to look for the proverbial Patient Zero. To ask why she is oppressed, by whom, what liberation looks like for her and what we can each individually do to contribute to that liberation. And, most importantly, why we should actually want that liberation to materialise.
The Seawomen uncomfortably reflects back to us our sorrowful complicity in our own oppression, contrastingly from both fearing the alternatives, and from being trained to win approval, reward and power from our oppressors, as seen through Esta, Mull and Norah, and the Eldermothers respectively.
This novel reminds us to get uncomfortable and examine our sources of information with a meticulous eye. Especially sources we have never thought to question and particularly their attitudes towards othered groups.
Which groups are being othered and why? What does our source stand to gain from retaining power over this group, be that economical, geographical or supposedly moral?
What becomes of the othered group when we accept the ideology of our source, lazily trusting them to have done the hard work on our behalf of connecting with the othered group before deciding they are a risk?
What visceral reactions do our bodies produce when we even consider the possibility of disagreeing with our source’s decrees?
The surveillance by which Father Jessop instructs the inhabitants to practice put me in mind of post-WWII Russia, the practices of which time we easily blanch at the thought of.
Yet we carry out and revel in witch huntings and figurative burnings every day, online and in real life. For what we say we don’t like, for what we say we do like, for who we love, for how we dress, for how we raise our children, for what we believe in. It always seems to be women offenders who never rise from the ashes that remain.
On Chloe Timms’s writing, I was enthralled from the off with the raw voice of child Etsa. She narrates the dystopia in that stark, matter-of-fact way only a child can, making the events all the more chilling. It reminded me a lot of Chrissie in Nancy Tucker’s The First Day of Spring.
We follow Esta over a number of years into early adulthood, and with that journey and the different anxieties jostling for her attention comes subtle changes in her narration style and word choices.
So subtle, in fact, that I didn’t realise how much she changes until I went back to the beginning to pick out my favourite quotes! I thought it was genius.
The Seawomen is an important work and I truly hope it is widely read. It asks us to examine who in society has power, how they liberate or oppress with that power, how our individual, everyday actions uphold that power, what it would cost us to topple it and whether we’re brave enough to pay that price.
They hold the woman tight because she keeps jerking her body all over the place, like she’s a dried u-up fish on land.
Everyone here is a girl. Apart from the important ones, like the Keepers, the Ministers and Father.
I’d like to sever her from my story, but I can’t. Our blood is tiedm my story is hers.
On the table she had laid out everything I needed to be her granddaughter.
A species that could live without land, without men. Everything they were was against God.
She blew out the candles and out went the warmth in her…
Her smell in a room, slightly sour and wet, animal, like goat milk left in a cup.
‘They’d be glad if there were no men at all. They want the whole world to be like them.’
I’d seen other people hold each other, skin smoothing skin. It looked nice and I practised alone, arms wrapped around my body, closing my eyes and pretending.
It took me years to see this moment for what it was, his every movement measured, orchestrated.
I didn’t know it then, but he had us all where he wanted, trembling, on our knees, willing to do whatever it took.
My skull was thumping with instructions, rules, reshaping.
‘You can’t trust a woman who gives birth to so many girls. Like she’s building an army. It’s unnatural.’
I knew the story, but I looked at Father Jessop attentively, pretending I didn’t.
The doctor directed his words more to me, attaching a smaile to his mouth like trying to fit a shoe the wrong size.
‘I shouldn’t think it’ll be too much of a challenge. I’ve got two of my own. Girls, I find, they’re best treated like animals. You feed them, keep them warm, set boundaries.’
The noise of the harbour below was constant, like a pulse.
Mull was a few inches taller and rounder than me. But she wasn’t ten yet, and at that age, it seemed important to count the differences.
She had a dimple in her chin, like someone had pushed their thumb into her before she was fully baked.
Perhaps she was used to following, obeying, drowned out by a house full of important men. or perhaps, like me, she just wanted a friend.
Now I was a woman in body, I saw how much more there was to be afraid of and how near that danger felt.
‘You want us to die out and them take over? That’s what you want? The whole world like them? Godless, disgusting?’
There was no space for redemption when the fear was so animal.
When the waves rolled closer, they folded into sighing curls on the sand.
Above us, the starred night spun, as the water hit my spine, the back of my neck, until finally the cold needled into the crown of my head.
‘But you’re a John.’ ‘It’s the John sons that matter,’ she said.
Women approached me to hand over their children. As I stared down into these innocent, unknowing faces, I could only see futures without choice.
The best lies start with some truth.
Sometimes their fear revives me, makes me believe I am wicked, I do have power.
They scream, the fear of drowning sounding so different from a man’s mouth.
I hope. I hope. Hope is all that’s left
The Seawomen will be celebrated by readers who love:
- explorations on feminism
- conversation on toxic piety and cults
- fantastical elements
Many thanks to Chloe Timms, Hodder Studio and Netgalley for the ARC.