Introduced by Sandi Toksvig
Review by Karen Langley
Fifty years ago, in the heat of the second wave of women’s liberation, a revolutionary feminist publishing house was formed by Carmen Callil and a group of like-minded women. To celebrate their anniversary this year, that publisher, Virago Press, have released an anthology of new fictions, all of which celebrate and set out to reclaim the various derogatory terms which have been applied to strong-minded women over the years. The result is an exhilarating collection of works which demonstrates the wide range of women’s writing as well as pushing the boundaries of fiction in a fascinating way. The book is Furies: Stories of the wicked, wild and untamed and it’s a worthy volume to mark 50 years of being in the vanguard of feminist publishing.
For this celebratory work, Virago have drawn on an impressive array of authors to explore the topic of damaging words. There’s a feeling, with terms of abuse, that if they’re reclaimed from the oppressors, re-appropriated and used by those abused, the words lose their power; certainly that’s often been the case with the N-word, which has been taken back and used by those of colour. It can be empowering to defuse these words by using them yourself – I’ve been known to refer to myself cheerfully as an old bag or old bat – but there’s no doubt that the terms can still hurt. So reading through these stories was sobering, often uplifting, and of course inspirational.
The collection opens with the marvellous Margaret Atwood who brings humour to her tale Siren, in which the Liminal Beings Knitting Circle attempts to be inclusive and allow all its members to co-exist peacefully. It’s clever and entertaining and laced with Atwood’s wonderfully dry wit. In Termagant, Emma Donoghue explores the real life Kathlyn Oliver, speculating on her inability to settle to marriage after the war, her eloquent letter writing on a number of revolutionary topics, and her search for a companion of her own sex.
Truth be told, there were some of these words that I’d be happy to take on and acknowledge – Warrior, Fury, Tygress and of course Virago – but some which still hold associations long used to put down women. Wench and Hussy deny women’s rights to free sexuality; Spitfire and She-Devil try to force them into quietness and acceptance; Muckraker and Harridan imply nastiness. And there is Churail, the title of Kamila Shamsie’s story, which is an Urdu word referring to a kind of vengeful spirit, often portrayed as an ugly old woman who disguises herself as a beautiful young one and lures men to their doom. On the other hand, Helen Oyeyemi’s Vituperator takes us into very modern territory, covering an AI system which is designed to troll specific individuals who need to be toughened up to deal with online hassle…
We set off and my fragile mother put her foot down hard on the accelerator and I realised, sitting in the passenger seat, with that sudden acute revelation of someone’s inner character that you only get when you’re a passenger and they’re driving, something else unsayable out loud so as not to disempower the knowing – that my mother wasn’t just a great driver, she was a fearless person in the world, a woman fazed by nothing. (Spitfire, Ali Smith)
One fascinating aspect of this stimulating collection is the sheer variety of styles used by the authors; some are relatively straightforward narratives, some complex and experimental (such as Kirsty Logan’s Wench), and there is even a short graphic piece She-Devil by Eleanor Crewes which is a rather unnerving exploration of a toxic mother-daughter relationship. Ali Smith’s Spitfire is a different look at a mother, where the narrator realises there is much about her parents she’ll never know, with their memories of wartime often being filtered or unsaid. I’ve just mentioned a few of the highlights in this collection, but really it’s an exemplary anthology, full of riches.
Furies is introduced by Sandi Toksvig, herself a witty and inspirational character, and the book is a fascinating read from start to finish; bracing, brilliant and rousing, the stories explore women’s lives and experiences through the lenses of the insults aimed at them. As well as being a reminder that we should try not to let words hurt us, they also allow us to embrace the language and turn it back upon the abusers. The one word I was perhaps surprised not to see featured was witch, which has been an incredibly harmful term to be flung at women over the centuries. Nevertheless, Furies is a wonderful and very powerful collection of works by some excellent authors and the perfect way to mark the anniversary of an innovative publishing house which changed the landscape for women’s writing.
Karen Langley blogs at kaggsysbookishramblings and hopes Virago continue for another 50 years! (www.kaggsysbookishramblings.wordpress.com)
Furies (Virago , 2023). 978-0349017143. 304pp., hardback.
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