Book review: About Sisterland

Martina Devlin has published her ninth novel and given up cooking. She met Sue Leonard to talk about her varied career and her “fundamentally contrary and curmudgeonly” attitude to her writing and journalism.

Martina Devlin

Ward River Press, €16.99; Kindle, €5.38 

MARTINA DEVLIN never cooks. She used to. She would prepare meals from scratch, and she did some baking too, but a few years ago she gave it up, deciding it was a mug’s game. 

So it’s no surprise that in her new novel featuring a world run by women, the houses don’t contain kitchens.

There’s a spacious kitchen in the elegant Victorian house in Dalkey, Dublin, that Martina shares with her husband, RTÉ’s business editor David Murphy, and Chekhov the cat. 

It’s open plan with the sitting room, and it’s gorgeous, and looks out onto the garden. 

Quiet, calm, and lovingly furnished, with lots of artwork and artistic touches, it’s a perfect place to write. 

But, as she makes me a pot of coffee, Martina swears she only puts ready-made food into the oven.

“I was on the Afternoon Show in Cork a year or two ago and Kevin Dundon was talking about these fantastic recipes. They turned to me and said, ‘Would you try that?’ and I said, ‘You’re joking. Life is too short to do any of this cooking’.” 

She laughs. “His jaw just dropped.

“My inspiration was a book called Herland, by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, an early 20th century feminist. It was about some male explorers who went up the Amazon and stumbled across an all-female society. 

"There was no crime, no violence, and no class system. It was utterly perfect and the men were puzzled by this.

“Charlotte Perkins Gilman made the case that you should not have kitchens within the home, but instead should have cheap eating places where families could go and eat, so that you could get rid of the drudgery for women. I thought that was a fantastic idea.”

When Martina started her novel, which is set in the near future, she imagined her world of women would be utopia.

“I thought what if women ruled the world? I thought, wouldn’t it be perfect? There would be no war; there would be all this co-operation.

“I thought it could be ruled by a group of women. They would get on wonderfully and everything would be harmonious, but then I thought, hang on, no it wouldn’t be! Women are people and people become corrupted by power. 

What’s more, they have different visions. The only way you would have nine rulers working for the same vision would be if they brainwashed themselves, and were intent on brainwashing other people,” she says.

About Sisterland opens with Constance, a young woman, starting to doubt certain elements of the controlling regime. Her ‘other’ — the friend she shared a house with — had jumped off a bridge, killing herself in an act of disloyalty. 

Pregnant, (or in Sisterland speak babyfused,) she had learnt she was carrying a boy, and would therefore have to give him up at birth.

Trying to banish her misgivings, Constance reminds herself, that as a shaper of people’s thoughts, she is privileged, and is making a difference to the community.

There are men in Sisterland; but they are subordinates, kept for menial labour and for mating.

And when Constance is chosen to reproduce, and finds herself alone with a man for the first time, she starts to question the directives of the nine, and wonder if there might be a better way to live.

The novel cleverly shows the reader that any idea, taken to extremes, can end up being a force for evil. Is Martina worried that the book will anger feminists?

“I define myself as a feminist, but I think feminism has made mistakes and should acknowledge that,” she says.

“You can’t demonise the other gender and make enemies of them. I am a daughter, a sister, a wife and an aunt — there are lots of men in my life, and I don’t like to see the demonisation of men that exists in some circles. 

"I don’t like to see children used as weapons between warring couples. I think feminists need to stop and regroup,” she says.

As Martina, rightly, points out, About Sisterland isn’t chiefly about feminism.

“The message is to be tolerant and beware of extremism,” she says. “For the women, Sisterland was a great idea, but in practise

it’s a nightmare because they never forgive men.” It’s set in the future, but is as much about the present.

“You look at the issues in Sisterland, and see them around us today. And I’m not just talking about Syria or Israel, and building a mental wall around your country and not interacting with your neighbours; I’m talking about Ireland, and some women not having autonomy over their bodies.

“I grew up in the North and I saw how extremism affected our society. I saw how when two people’s are set apart extremism can put down roots and flourish. 

"You can achieve more by trying to work together, by parking your anger and learning to forgive.

“I took that from the North, and from the peace process, which works, although it’s imperfect, because people have had to forgive.”

Emotions are suppressed in Sisterland. Memories too. The memory keepers and shapers move them on a step.

“It’s propaganda really,” says Martina. 

“Working in the media, I see how messages can be tweaked and spun and reshaped.” 

Martina’s last two books, The Ship of Dreams, about the Titanic, and The House Where it Happened, set in 1711 with a witchcraft trial, were brilliantly received. She was expected to come up with another historical novel, but she hates doing what people expect of her.

“About Sisterland is my ninth book in 15 years, and I am now finding my voice. I was rather shoehorned into my first few books. The publishers wanted commercial women’s fiction. I was writing a more literary book, and they said, “No! No! No!”

She’s had a varied career. She switched from law to journalism; worked in Fleet Street; took an English degree, won a Hennessey Award for a short story, and is now a valued columnist and political commentator.

Nine years ago, when Martina was offered her opinion column in The Irish Independent, she didn’t expect it to last long.

“I won’t be told what to do,” she says. 

“I’m fundamentally contrary and curmudgeonly, and I thought I would lose the column quite soon. But they’re very good to me. Nobody tells me what to write about.

“It’s a useful platform. I take a strong view on a topic that is being debated, or one I want to kick start a debate on. I vent on all kinds of subjects, and it helps that I’m an outsider, coming from the North.”

Martina doesn’t think of herself as a journalist or novelist so much as a storyteller.

“Everything I do is part of the storytelling impetus,” she says. 

“In my columns I tell a story to engage people’s attention. Telling a story well is an art; you don’t get your message across by beating people about the head.”

And as she does in her columns, she does in her novels. The last three, in particular, though utterly different from each other, are all mesmerising reads. About Sisterland might be chilling but it’s also a very human story of love, friendship, loss and desire.

“To understand the future, you have to understand the essence of being human,” says Martina. 

“Whether you’re writing about 1711, 1912, or the 22nd century, it’s all about being people. People can learn, but there is something in them that doesn’t change the essence of fallibility. You can learn from mistake A, but then you make mistake B.”


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