I Who Have Never Known Men by Jacqueline Harpman, tr. from the French by Ros Schwartz
Published by Vintage, 2019 (First published in 1995)
My rating: ⭐ ⭐ ⭐
From the quality of the prose, to the big, philosophical questions it poses, this understated dystopian novel from Belgian author Jacqueline Harpman feels destined to become a modern classic. Its concept is instantly enthralling: a group of 40 women who have spent years being held prisoner in an underground bunker with no knowledge as to why finally escape on a stroke of luck, and must attempt to survive in the sparse, deserted world they find above.
Harpman confronts the reader with some fascinating ideas, from the value of knowledge in a world that no longer requires it, to the qualities of humanity that should endure in the absence of society. Wandering a largely barren landscape, the few tableaus her characters do encounter are made all the more vivid and haunting.
The constant search for answers (who are these women? Why were they kept prisoner? Who were their captors? What happened to the rest of humanity?) are so compelling that I found myself powering through the book. I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say we never gain any of this context, however. It certainly ties into the theme of how much importance and meaning we place on having knowledge and understanding of the world around us, but it also results in a lack of closure that is sure to alienate some readers.
The biggest stumbling block in submitting myself to the book’s singular world for me was not a lack of answers, however, but a number of holes in both plot and logic. The women (particularly our narrator, who was so young when she was taken prisoner that she has no recollection of the outside world) adapt far too quickly to their newfound freedom. There’s no sense of them being blinded by the sunlight or daunted by the vast, open plains that await them above ground when they’ve only known a single, windowless room for more than a decade. I’ll leave out specifics to avoid spoiling what little plot there is, but suffice to say they also seem to be equipped with a range of skills that is frankly baffling given their background.
And whilst it’s interesting to read from the perspective of a heroine who is intelligent, eloquent, resourceful, rebellious, and snarky, none of these qualities feel believable in a teenage girl who has never known affection or education; whose physical and cognitive development would have been severely impeded by her captive upbringing. Her ability to be writing the account of her life at all (which is how the novel is presented) feels like a huge stretch, especially given how good Harpman’s prose is.
A big pet peeve of mine is when smaller plot holes – like how buildings continue to be powered by electricity for decades despite no sign of any power source – are acknowledged briefly by the characters but never actually addressed. It feels like a lazy way of avoiding a problem the author simply doesn’t want to deal with. While I have no issue whatsoever with a writer holding back information to enhance a book’s narrative or themes in some way, I don’t like when it comes across as though they themselves simply didn’t have the answers.
Despite having several complaints, and this review likely coming across negatively as a result, this was still a very worthwhile and stimulating read; my frustrations stemming from how much I wanted to adore it based on its enormous potential. For those who are better able to suspend their disbelief, or who don’t mind plot and character being used as thin veils for an author to ruminate on interesting themes, this is well worth checking out. Taking a much quieter, more contemplative approach to dystopian fiction, it stands unique amidst a crowded genre, and I’m certain it’s one that will keep me thinking for a while.
You can pick up a copy of I Who Have Never Known Men by clicking here.