This edition of Nicci Gerrard’s Things We Knew Were True has an abundance of pink on the cover. The ladies dresser is complete with pink flowers, pink lipstick, pink make-up dust and a pink-lined compact mirror. They’re all in front of pink patterned wallpaper, while the reviews are in- that’s right- pink.
This is a book that, for whatever reason, is targeted at women. That’s what the pink is telling the reader. That’s what the soft, inoffensive font of the author’s name and book title are there for. That doesn’t mean male readers can’t enjoy it and doesn’t mean that female readers are guaranteed to enjoy it, but anyone holding understands instantly who the target audience is.
This is a woman’s book.
So before even opening this novel I am forced to expect the clichéd “pink” tropes of “ladies literature”- fainting, romance, indecision, dress-shopping, erm… quilt-making? All this because of how the cover presents the book to me.
Well… thankfully this is one of those instances when I couldn’t be more wrong. The book doesn’t read as feminine or ladylike in any respect, although I’m not convinced I could genuinely say what such a book would actually read like.
Yes, there are a lot of female characters, all dealing with growing pains, or the dramas of their twilight years, but there is nothing specifically gendered about what they go through. In fact all the genders in the book could be inverted, or replaced with a commune of homosocial/homosexual individuals, and the story would still make just as much sense.
While this is exactly the kind of gem that I’m glad Crap Looking Books occasionally coughs up- a good read in a bad cover -it’s also a little infuriating. I would go as far to say that the cover has absolutely nothing to do with the book, and inasmuch could easily deter a whole slew of readers that might potentially enjoy it.
Make no mistake, this review is not an attack on women’s literature, whether that’s books written by women, published by women, or written for women (whatever the fuck that would actually entail). It’s a brief critique of the decisions made by publishers and/or retailers to market a book in a particular way, and a book cover that reinforces stereotypes by using them to target a particular demographic. In non-genre fiction we seem to be constantly pressed against this idea that male authors are suitable for all genders, but female authors must only be for women, while all that publishers and retailers seem able to do is to ride this wind instead of tacking against it.
Setting the sudden use of sailing metaphors aside, I should probably talk about the book itself. Things We Knew Were True is that beautiful kind of book that’s both saddening and uplifting. It’s a story where nothing happens, but also where everything happens, a pointless but pointed story of how generations of the same family make the same mistakes as they embark on the great journey of just living one day after the other.
Life isn’t a spaceship crashing through the back wall of your kitchen to set you off on a world-saving adventure, or Fitz Cracker telling you you’re a wizard. Real life is the tiny moments and nuances between yourself and others, those little actions and inactions that change you deeply, yet affect no global change beyond your own little circle.
I can’t do anything but love this book, because it’s exactly the kind of thing that I enjoy, and exactly the kind of humanist narrative that I often aim to write.