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"They were going to cut off her leg."
Huey Helene Alcaro's debut novel In the Land of Two Legged Women begins with this terrifying pronouncement.
"It was a blue and golden day, so beautiful it hurt and they were going to saw off her leg."
In the Land of Two Legged Women is a dark and thoughtful fable about religious fervor and gender roles run amok, with surprising moments of humour and warmth. It's a dystopia novel in the tradition of Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale, but with a speculative social structure and world all its own.
The people of Alcaro's fictional city Ramprend are isolated, cut off from outsiders save for occasional visits from raiding mountain people. They worship the great god Ploch, and live strictly within the bounds of a gender and class system, which seems a bit like Victorian England gone haywire.
"Legs like vases? Penises? Long, long penises?"
When women come of age in Ramprend they undergo a Beautification Ritual and lose one leg to a saw. They're left dependant on men for everything. Rich women are rolled around in chairs, carried on platforms, and stacked in carriages like furniture. Poor women workers are left to dangle in harnesses or drag themselves around on crutches.
The ludicrousness of this premise hit me early on: How can this society sustain itself without unimpaired female labour? How can Ramprend afford to saw of the legs of all women? Why would it do such a thing?
But I stopped asking these questions the longer I read. I realized that this absurdity is a crucial part of Alcaro's alternate world -- it's an extension of the gender-related absurdity women have faced throughout history and still face today.
Alcaro grounds the madness of this world through her self-aware protagonist Solanji'l, an intelligent high-class woman, who is good with woodworking. Solanji'l decides to dismantle this strange patriarchy from the inside out through a simple invention: wooden legs for women.
It's through Solanji'l that the reader learns what it's like to live with one leg -- both the emotional pain of maiming and the practical struggle of movement. The scenes where she staggers around the room trying to use the wooden leg are exciting, and surprisingly funny.
When considering how to shape the wooden legs she's creating Solanji'l wonders what will be most pleasing and non-threatening for men. "What would amuse men?" she wonders. "Legs like vases, tree trunks, table legs? Penises? Long, long penises?"
Solanji'l finagles her way into this closed off world by convincing a priest to let her start a women's group where they'll discuss "pleasing their husbands." We meet Petra'l, Janka'l, Morgani'l and Deba'l, women in whom Solanji'l recognizes kindred spirits. It's good world building on Alcaro's part -- through these communities of women I could catch glimpses into the different kinds of marriages and lives of Ramprendian women.
Complex women populate Ramprend
The relationships between these women are the core of Alcaro's story. Her female characters are distinct and memorable: Petra'l, who, despite the loss of her leg, takes great pleasure in sex, Debra'l, whose husband actually considers his wife's opinion and allows her to run the house, and Phylli'l who has drunk the Ramprendian Kool-Aid and staunchly campaigns against any kind of female liberation.
Phylli'l is presented as an example of a self-hating woman, "the apotheosis of inner loathing." While this is true, I found her part of the story particularly interesting for another reason: in a patriarchal society where women's voices aren't supposed to be heard she "assaults" her listeners by speaking in a "piercing register." She opposes the idea of women having legs even when men support it.
Sure, she's still a "villain" in the context of the story because she gets in the way of our protagonists plans, but I found her fascinating. She leads a kind of rebellion against powerlessness by vocally expressing the opinion that women ought to be powerless -- she's a self-contradictory character and I think Alcaro did well to include her as a counterpart to Solanji'l.
Revolutions are entertaining. It was satisfying to watch Alcaro's women outwit and outlast their oppressors, gain some measure of autonomy, and create things for themselves. When the women organize a talent show and begin to create their own songs and performances for the first time in their lives I was genuinely moved.
However, the climax is a bit surprising for this compassionate and humane piece of work. Alcaro leaves readers with a moral quandary that is never fully addressed by the author.
What punishment befits those who perpetuate systems of oppression? It's a question worth asking, and it could have been explored further from Solanji'l's point of view.
The conclusion struck a similar chord for me. While ambiguity can be effective in speculative narratives, it seems like the wrong questions were left unanswered, while other loose ends were tied up too easily. Mysteries go unsolved, relationships go unexplored and everything is wrapped up too quickly.
World of Ramprend leaves readers wanting more
In The Land of Two Legged Women is a promising start for a first-time novelist. It's an emotionally moving and empowering piece of work that appealed to me as a woman and a feminist: I loved watching a marginalized group of women change their situation through their own collective strength.
The narratives can be connected to to social morays we're still trying to shake off: the idea that women don't feel sexual pleasure in the same way men do, that men desire helpless women, and most resoundingly the idea that men have a right to control female bodies.
Ramprend might be a one-time experiment for Alcaro, but if she were to write about it again I would gladly read more. She has created an interesting, but incomplete dystopian scenario, one that is in many ways relevant to women's experiences today.
Clarissa Fortin is rabble's former book intern.