"To the north-east they say there is a great land where the plants aren't very deviational, and the animals and people don't look deviational, but the women are very tall and very strong. They rule the country entirely, and do all the work. They keep their men in cages until they are about twenty-four years old, and then eat them. They also eat shipwrecked sailors. But as no one ever seems to have met anyone who has actually been there and escaped, it's difficult to see how that can be known. Still, there it is --- no one has ever come back denying it either ---John Wyndham, The Chrysalids."
This introductory passage is a curious way to begin. Before anything is revealed, some troubling questions have been raised: What did men do, and how did they come to be known as the enemy? How could any event ever condone this? And how would any woman ever feel fulfilled by a life that exposes her to only half of humanity? Once the reader jumps in, these questions become more complicated as you are engaged in the carefully concealed mystery of this island.
The opening picture in the first half of the book offers a narrow glimpse into the bizarre lifestyle of a functioning all-female society. On the surface, their system seems to work well if one doesn't consider the disturbing questions behind the morality of it. They have managed for generations without their male counterparts, wielding their weapons with impressive force and skill, protecting themselves from outside influences, and performing all the physical labor necessary for a smooth operation. Traditional female roles have been erased, and women are allowed no impractical indulgences. Emotional frivolity and laziness are strictly forbidden. They are expressly banned from engaging in individual friendships. Every young girl is raised in a detached system that is devoted only to the collective good, and upon reaching maturity, is herded into her assigned occupation to which she'll devote the rest of her life.
But this is a carefully controlled system that thrives only under the strictest of rules. Committee members are frequently assigned to spy on citizens to ensure their cooperation, and there are other signs that the system doesn't always work. The most obvious is the group's harsh methods of punishment for any who dare to defy them. Perpetrators are subjected to public sentences that are often disturbing to watch. All citizens are required to be observers and are bound by a vow of silence. Being a mother has also fallen into the realm of criminal sentences somehow, as it is a punishment associated with shame. The committee's methods for organizing pregnancies are procedures the women have grown to fear, and this perhaps more than anything is threatening the survival of their convenient system.
Yet change is inevitable, especially in such a harsh and isolated world --- just as it had been before they left everything behind. When a group of trackers comes across a locked dwelling hidden nearby, they discover some interesting relics that stir up passions they didn't even know they had. Particularly intriguing are the many colorful pictures of men from the other world, creatures that look nothing like the enemies they've imagined. They are just as fascinated by the images and possessions of the women, appreciating their beauty and the carefree determination that they used to express themselves.
NOMANSLAND is a thoughtful dystopian fantasy that explores the most basic ideas of what it means to be female. One of the main focuses is the difficult balance between modern feminist ideals and traditional female roles. Many moralistic questions pervade this mystery, which isn't fully unraveled until the last pages. I was pleasantly surprised by the outcome here, which is both serious and hopeful. These ideas will fascinate readers, but the book does tend to fall flat at some points in terms of action and overall character involvement. The optimistic finale and absorbing mystery of who the real enemy is are its strengths.
Reviewed by Melanie Smith on October 18, 2011