A cursory reading of Rosalie Morales Kearns’s glorious new novel, Kingdom of Women (Jaded Ibis Press, 2017), would position it as a fantasy of female superiority, a snarky tonic for an era when the abuses of the patriarchy have never been more visible. But the book is exponentially more complex than that. It envisions a utopian matriarchal colony, but refuses a utopian narrative, laying plain the problems that accompany any system of power. It imagines victory for women in a gender war made literal, and then sours that victory with savage war crimes: death by firing squad or indefinite detention for innocent men.
Through its most intriguing character, Averil Parnell, Kingdom of Women offers the reader a full-color picture of a mystic, perhaps even a saint, but weights her every vice and failing with as much significance as her miracles. Partly, Averil’s many imperfections reflect the feminist society that sprouts into existence during her lifetime. The world’s first and only female Catholic priest, Averil hears the chanting of ghost monks, sees nonexistent weaving women, and allows Jesus to comfort her when she can’t sleep. She also refuses the position of army chaplain in order to wash dishes, and maintains a lengthy sexual affair with a sociopath. The closest company Averil keeps, with a male murderer and a female assassin, call into question her connection to God. But this book traffics extensively in paradox; her visions are not fraudulent.
If I’ve lost you, it’s no wonder. Kingdom of Women is not just thematically complicated. It’s difficult to summarize, with characters that cannot be done justice by describing them in thumbnails. I’ve been recommending this book to people for months, and I have already given up trying to explain it succinctly. The characters are distinct and the motions of cause and effect are easy enough to follow; the novel simply covers a lot of time and a lot of territory. It’s unusual, in all ways: steeped in religious ideas and language, but too violent and sexual to give to my Catholic mother-in-law; written in the immediate language of Tana French, with rich ideas, and masterful fragmentation, reminiscent of Kate Zambreno.
“And the parallel is, we find ourselves among violent men so we turn to violence too.”
“Like a contagion.”
“Does it work the other way?” Averil said. “If you put a thief in a den of saints, does he turn saintly?”
“Hasn’t happened yet,” Catherine said.
At present, American culture is at a kind of tipping or turning point with regard to men’s treatment of women. Aggression between the sexes has never been laid so bare. Kearns did not write this novel last month, but the metaphors and analogues in it are so relevant to the fall of 2017 that the reader can be forgiven for thinking she might have. In the book, shadow armies of women take violent action against men who have harmed women without consequence, but the literality of their action is the only difference between the book’s rendering of gender tension and our nation’s, today. As a shadow army’s manifesto declares:
When a man raises his hand against a woman, we beat him bloody.
When a man rapes his little daughter, we take him to a back alley and slit his throat, and while his blood pours out of his body, we tell him why he is dying.
Where a cleric preaches against us, we set fire to his pulpit.
When they deny us schooling, we bomb their ministry of education.
When they deny our right to vote, we bomb their polling places.
When they curtail all our rights, even our very movements, the clothing on our body, and throw acid in our faces if we resist, we use our warrior skills, turn their deadly violence against them.
We take our own anger, and unleash it against them.
Reminds one of Uma Thurman on the red carpet, no?
If Kingdom of Women is a novel about war, it’s also a novel about a friendship, of friends who are called to different, intertwined destinies. Catherine is too tethered to the material world to go where Averil leads, and Averil is too tuned in to the divine to approve of Catherine’s bloody sense of justice. But they talk to each other, listen to each other, remake their lives together again and again.
“What do I care about the Geneva Conventions? Women didn’t make those rules. Women have never had a say in the rules.”
“If you had carried out this kind of killing,” Averil said, “I would worry about the effect on your soul.”
“A soul does me no good,” Catherine said, “if it gets in the way of justice.”
She didn’t want help, Averil saw, let alone forgiveness, or even understanding. This was no confession. It was a proclamation. She wanted to be known, plain and simple. Truly known by at least one other person in this life.
Usually, a book composed in fragments gives an emotional impression, often at the expense of a strong plot. However, this book excels at both, with hard-hitting language and an uncompromising voice. Appropriately, the central machine of the book is paradox, the necessary holding of two contradictory ideas in the same hand. Nothing is single-sided in this novel, which is part of why it’s such an exhilarating read. Kingdom of Women proves itself even more a novel of the moment: never has our culture had to hold so much contradiction together, particularly with regard to men and their treatment of women. This book teaches us that paradox is always uneasy. Irresolution persists until death takes us.
It’s impossible to call this novel satisfying, because the reader must make intellectual efforts, sit through injustice, and cope with mortality, all without the comfort of a predictable system like patriarchy or the Catholic Church (both overthrown). But, as Averil embodies through her affair with her shadowy mirror image, John, who cares about satisfaction when the torment is so delicious? Kingdom of Women is a must-read, a stunning, unforgettable novel that perfectly replicates, and interrogates, our cultural climate.
KATHARINE COLDIRON‘s work has appeared in Ms., the Rumpus, the Offing, and elsewhere. She lives in California and blogs at the Fictator.