Jacqueline Harpman – I Who Have Never Known Men
Length: 208 pages
Genre: Technically post-apocalyptic sci-fi, but reads more like literary fiction
Started / Finished: 09 April 2011
Where did it come from? Bookmooch.
Why do I have it? I have absolutely zero idea where I heard about this book. If you’re the one who recommended it, thanks!
How long has it been on my TBR pile? Since 29 January 2011.
What does it take to
really be human in a
world where no one’s free?
Summary: The nameless narrator of I Who Have Never Known Men doesn’t remember life outside the cage. Ever since she was young, she’s lived in a cage with thirty-nine other women, constantly watched by guards who don’t speak. The other women occasionally reminisce about their lives before the cage, but the girl has no such memories to speak of. None of them are sure why they’re in a cage, or exactly how long they’ve been there, or why there was one young girl included with the grown women. Life goes on in these conditions as best it can, never varying, until one day a chance occurrance lets the women escape. But the world they knew is gone, and the task of making their way in this new world falls to the youngest among them, the girl who has never known anything else.
Review: I Who Have Never Known Men is this bizarre little introspective book, a relatively straightforward dystopian sci-fi novel that nevertheless reads more like an extended philosophical musing, a book that is quiet and haunting and heartbreaking and frustrating and thought-provoking, all at the same time. The entire novel asks what it really means to be human; where that humanity comes from, and whether it can survive under the most dehumanizing conditions, or in the complete absence of other people. I don’t know that the novel ever comes to any firm conclusions on those points, but it does provide a lot of food for thought (especially given its length), and I can see this book working wonderfully well as a discussion starter for a book club or high school lit class.
There is no continuity, and the world from which I have come is completely foreign to me. I have not heard its music, I have not seen its painting, I have not read its books, except for the handful I found in the refuge and of which I understood little: I know only the stony plain, wandering and the gradual loss of hope. I am the sterile offspring of a race about which I know nothing, not even whether it has become extinct. Perhaps, somewhere, humanity is flourishing under the stars, unaware that a daughter of its blood is ending her days in silence. There is nothing we can do about it. –p. 129-130
This book didn’t just leave its philosophical questions unanswered; it also never clarified a lot of its plot points. The plot sticks entirely to the narrator’s viewpoint, and the readers aren’t given any additional information; we never find out why the women were in the cage, or what happened in the past, or even where they are. This is the sort of thing that typically frustrates the hell out of me, but in this case, I found it less annoying than one might think. Perhaps because all of those worldbuilding-type points are peripheral to the point of the novel; it matters less why she’s there than what she’s going to do about it.
Overall, while I didn’t find it a completely satisfying novel, it packs a lot of narrative heft for such a slim book, and it’s definitely the type of book that I’m still going to be thinking about for a long time after I’ve turned the last page. 4 out of 5 stars.
Recommendation: I’m having a hard time categorizing this book into a genre, let alone coming up with read-alikes to suggest. Ursula K. LeGuin, maybe? But I don’t think this book is only for sci-fi fans; although the basic premise is technically sci-fi, I think the story and the narrative voice will appeal to a much broader range of readers.
First Line: Since I barely venture outside these days, I spend a lot of time in one of the armchairs, rereading the books.
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