Three centuries the world as we know it perished in an act known as the convulsion; it rendered swathes of the country uninhabitable. As a result, society has evolved into parallel cultures – women and children live in walled towns, where they raise livestock and grow plants, develop skills and arts, practice medicine and science, and maintain the knowledge that was almost lost. Men guard the towns, protecting them from attack from the garrisons of other townships and from raids by those who live outside Women’s Country. Several times a year the women host a carnival, and the men enter the town to catch up with family and carouse. The Council, who run the town, keep track of who’s fathered which children, and at age five boys are handed over to their warrior fathers to be raised as men. For the next ten years they only see their female kin during carnivals, and at age fifteen they have to decide – repudiate their mothers and stay a warrior, or return to the town as a servitor. The servitors are usually deployed to other towns, away from their warrior former brothers, and are seen as something less than men.
The book opens when Stavia has to make her way to the garrison, to learn whether her fifteen-year-old son Dawid will come home or stay a warrior; he choses to stay, and though he has another ten years to make his final decision (the warriors are not allowed to engage in battle until they are twenty-five, at which time they may no longer return to live in Women’s Country), she knows it is less likely now.
Like all the women, though proud of her son, she grieves for the lost sons, brothers and lovers, and the loss of Dawid brings back the long ago day she escorted her mother and sister when her baby brother Jerby turned five.
The novel switches between Stavia as an adult, and her progress from the day they gave back Jerby through her adolescence and maturation to womanhood. And threaded throughout is the millennia-old pre-convulsion play the women perform every year, Iphigenia at Ilium, about Helen of Troy. A tragedy treated as a comedy, the play illustrates not only the contrast between pre- and post-convulsion mores but also the hidden workings of this new society.
On my first reading of The Gate to Women’s Country, almost twenty years ago, I thought the play extracts were a waste of time, but on subsequent rereading (this is perhaps the fifth) I see the play adds texture and depth to the novel as a whole.
Tepper writes feminist fantasy, which sounds as though it would be earnest and unappealing. In fact the writing, unquestionably feminist and women-centric, is engaging, thought-provoking and interesting. The underlying ideology informs the plot rather than detracting from it, and there’s no gender divide – some female characters are stupid, thoughtless, materialistic, lazy, and some male characters are selfless, insightful, tender and valuable.
This novel views the future with cautious hope, and shines a light on the misogyny and imbalance in our current culture. Tepper is a gifted and deft writer and if you’re interested this is an excellent introduction to her work. – Alex