Jul 17, 2010

I Who Have Never Known Men

by Jacqueline Harpman
translated from French

I read this book some years ago, but the main points have still stuck in my head. I don't quite know how to write about this one without spoilers, so be forewarned!

Forty women are kept caged in an underground bunker. Their guards are men who never speak to them, and avoid any interaction. The youngest, through whose eyes we see the story, cannot remember a time before this imprisoned life. None of the other women will tell her why they are there, or reveal what happened to turn their world into a desolation. One day an alarm sounds and the guards run out suddenly, allowing them to escape. They wander through a strange empty landscape, searching endlessly for other people. One by one the older women die until the narrator is left alone in the empty world, with only her own thoughts to commune with.

It's a very disconcerting story. Related in a lovely fashion, I admit I was hooked and didn't want to put it down, but that was mostly because I wanted to know why everything: what had caused the disaster that destroyed the world? why did the other women never speak of it? why did the guards refuse to communicate with them? but what frustrated me most was that even after they had escaped and gone outside, no more revelations were really forthcoming. I gather now, that wasn't the point of the book, it's meant to show something about human nature. What makes us human when the world (almost literally) is gone? what about a child, who grows up knowing nothing but this desolation, how will she form herself and recognize her own humanity? but as I read the story I didn't really get it, and I'm still not sure if I do. I just found it sad, disturbing and ultimately, frustrating.

Have any of you read it? Did you make any more sense of it than I? (I gave it a 3 for a good book because really it was captivating to read. It was just the end that unsettled me with its depressing note and lack of answers).

Rating: 3/5 ........ 206 pages, 1997

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Susan said...

How was this book marketed, Jeane? I've never heard of it. It sounds both strange and interesting, and disorienting too. I know you can't forget it, did you really like it?

Jenny said...

This sounds interesting but a little frustrating. I like ambiguity in books, but not to the point where you never know anything at all about what's going on. Like The Metamorphosis, or that Nabokov one about the guy who's going to be executed and doesn't know why--just not really my thing.

Debi said...

I've never heard of this book. It really does sound intriguing, but I think I know myself well enough to know that I'd ultimately end up more frustrated than anything. At the same time, I suspect, like you, it's a book that would stick with me over time.

Jeane said...

Susan- I think it was marketed as fantasy. It felt very surreal and dreamlike to me. Hm, I don't think I really liked it, mostly because I prefer endings that tie up nicely! but I was very held to the page, and did a lot of thinking, and that was probably the author's aim so I think it is successful and a good book, regardless of whether I ever want to read it again!

Jenny- a certain amount of ambiguity is fine with me (The Metamorphosis is a book that fascinates me, I've read it three times!) but this one was just too inexplicable.

Debi- Funny how sometimes the books that you can't forget are those you just don't comprehend! (at least, that's how it was for me with this one).

Coffee and a Book Chick said...

This does sound intriguing -- I'm wondering if you've read The Road and if it compared at all? Sounds like similar questions are asked on what makes humanity, but it sounds like this one doesn't really provide anything concrete to chew on. But if it still sticks with you, maybe it struck that chord? I'm wondering and may take a look at this next time I'm in the bookshop!

Janet said...

Hmm. I left a comment yesterday and it's not here. Maybe I didn't type in the word verification right.

Anyway, your review intrigued me so much that I looked for this at the different libraries available to us. No luck. :-( It sounds so frustrating, but so interesting.

Zibilee said...

you know, every time I come here, I find the most amazing books. You have really good taste in literature! I am going to have to add this one to my list a well and see what I think of it. It sounds very interesting!