Rosalie Morales Kearns’ debut novel, Kingdom of Women (Jaded Ibis Press), comes at a perfect time. Never before have we so badly needed to see what is possible when women act on the anger that is a product of living in a patriarchal world. Kearns imagines a world where women are not only armed and dangerous but also rising up to kill those who assault, rape, and murder women and children. The book is set in an undetermined future time, post- internet, when North Dakota has seceded from the U.S. and become a feminist utopia called Erda; the FBI is concerned about groups of feminist vigilantes.
The story is focused around Averil Parnell, the only survivor of the first class of female Catholic priests after a mass-shooting at their ordination ceremony. An affair with a male parishioner forces Averil to leave the church, so she makes her way to Erda before war breaks out between the Erdans and the U.S. The war and the plague that follows make way for a dystopian post-war vision where men are illiterate day laborers ordered to have vasectomies, or much worse, if they are found guilty of rape. Women even find a way to reproduce without men, and the question if some or any men have value becomes an urgent concern. A scene where a male character visits a “guest house” in search of company illustrates sex between a man and a woman where familiar power roles are reversed:
“None of his regulars were there, but he was quickly chosen.
‘You into kissing?’ he said hopefully when they got into the room.
The woman’s laugh sounded more like a grunt. ‘Not going to happen.’…
He wasn’t sure where to look, whether looking at her would make her uncomfortable or whether not looking at her would seem insulting. “
Kearns has created a fascinating world with her ability to see the possibilities of breaking out of a patriarchal culture so entrenched we barely realize the extent of its limitations. While Averil, as the main character, is interesting, she is also somewhat inaccessible and appears as more of a vehicle for the author to explore nuanced themes than as a character with whom the reader can readily identify. It is her antagonist and lover, John Honig, a womanizer, who appears the most human and complex, and after his exit from the narrative, the plot lags. Nevertheless, lyrical descriptions, the palpability of a believable world, and the suspense over Averil’s future carry the story. Towards the end of the book, a minor character reflects:
“The women alive today, most of them, had been born afterwards. They didn’t know what it was like to be belittled, silenced, harassed. Careers stymied. Doors slammed in their faces. They didn’t know what it was to fear walking down a dark street alone, hiking through a forest alone. Didn’t know what it was like when women had been prey, and the predators had been in charge.”
Let’s hope at some point we, too, can look back and also have those challenges be a memory.
Kingdom of Women is out now.
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