Review: Dietland by Sarai Walker

dietland.jpgRegular visitors to this blog will know that I am a big fan of snarky feminist novels, and I can now add Dietland to my list of these. It’s a really interesting novel which is ostensibly about Plum, an overweight woman contemplating drastic surgery in order to more readily fit society’s expectations of beauty. In the background, but becoming increasingly linked to Plum’s story, is an aggressive campaign of attacks against men and patriarchal structures, with the elusive Jennifer fighting back against rape and objectification.

Earlier this year, I really enjoyed Julie Murphy’s Dumplin‘, which, like Dietland, used an overweight narrator to show the isolation that it creates. There are some interesting differences; for one thing, Murphy’s Willowdean owns the word “fat,” meaning that it can’t be used against her as an insult, whereas Plum is offended when others use the word and chooses not to use it herself when it’s avoidable. Both books are about learning to love the body you have, rather than making yourself miserable yearning for the body you’re meant to have, which I think is a really empowering message. Also in Dietland’s favour is the cast of fascinating female characters, which makes it both unusual and refreshing; some of them are clearly slightly unhinged but really intriguing nonetheless.

Walker does a great job of skewering aspects of society which will be familiar to all humans with functioning eyes and ears; it’s hard not to cheer on the mysterious Jennifer when child rapists are being punished, vigilante-style, and there’s a very witty and well-observed short section which sees Page 3, that delightful institution of the British tabloids, gender-flipped. I smiled wryly as the book told of poor, delicate men who suddenly felt too uncomfortable to go in a newsagents’, lest they feel objectified by the appearance of male genitalia in a mainstream newspaper. I like books that make me have big, moral discussions with myself (I like them even more when someone else reads them so I don’t actually have to discuss them with myself); Jennifer’s actions of righteous revenge go pretty far, and in a real-world situation, I don’t think I’d have been whooping quite so loudly.

I’ve seen Dietland described as “Fight Club for women,” which, firstly, is very sexist because it clearly suggests that Fight Club isn’t for women, but, aside from that, I would describe it more in terms of another Chuck Palahniuk novel; Dietland, for me, is a more successful satire than Palahniuk’s Beautiful You, which was essentially a quite horrible book about the breakdown of society as a consequence of women becoming addicted to sex toys. Where Beautiful You was just offensive, Dietland manages to hit its targets in terms of misogyny (and, it’s worth pointing out, the ways in which women hurt other women; it’s not like it’s some unrealistic utopia of pyjama parties and makeovers), using shock tactics as well as a believable and relatable story. It’s a really interesting and refreshing read and I recommend it.

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