Sunday, 12 December 2010

Book Review: Land of Women

Land of Women: tales of sex and gender from early Ireland
Lisa Bitel

No book is perfect, and I often find myself split 50/50 on my opinion of what I think of a particular work. I think this book is a fine example of that problem - I see good and bad, and find myself conflicted about it overall. The bibliography and references are great, and give me plenty to go on. I find some of it useful in my research...but there's this lurking sense of disappointment, too.

I think I can overcome the flaws this time, unlike, say, Dames' Mythic Ireland. I really wanted to like that book too, but all things considered the interpretations were just a bit too bonkers for me to really recommend it confidently to anyone, other than for curiosity...

This book isn't bonkers, at all, really. But my problems with it still leave a bittersweet taste...I think the problems fall into two camps: One is the lack of balance to the arguments and evidence presented overall, and the other is the author's bias in some of her interpretations that I find disagreeable and distracting.

The way the chapters are laid out give a repetitiveness and skewed view to everything discussed that becomes difficult to overcome when read from start to finish. The arguments and evidence are laid out clearly and confidently, but each chapter tends to end up falling on the negative, rather than a balanced view, and on reflection, I think that has a lot to do with the fact that many of those points were oft repeated. No bad thing for referencing and dipping into, to be fair, but I felt that overall it wasn't such a good thing for readability. Yes, I get the point, now can we move on....No? Oh...

Each chapter follows a basic premise - looking at certain aspects of women's life in early Ireland - and I suppose given the evidence to deal with it's inevitable that the picture is going to be very negative, all things considered. What I mean is, we can look to the laws and penitentials and so on, to see what life was really like, but that's all skewed to an ideal that was never really a reality, and it's all skewed against the favour of women. But in practice, the lines were not so clearly drawn, all of the time, necessarily. And while this is all very definitely acknowledged and discussed, my reading of it seemed like this comment was an afterthought, and often contradictory to the overall tone. I'm aware, however, that it's a trap that's easily fallen into, and one that I may have unintentionally fallen into myself with the latest load of articles I've done covering marriage. So maybe I'm not one to talk there.

A hard dose of reality for the romanticists? Definitely not a bad thing. I just think in the end I would've preferred the points to be hammered home somewhat closer to the middle ground. But another problem I have with this book - a problem of perspective more than anything - is the treatment of the likes of Medb, Badb, and the Morrigan as purely literary creations and imaginings. No sense that while the author herself may see them only as that - creations - those writing about them at the time may have thought otherwise, or understood that those before them saw things differently, at least. That kind of grated, and the bias towards this interpretation really skewed things in a light that I didn't agree with.

As I said, though, there's a lot going for the book as well. My disappointment is probably proportionate to my high hopes for it (having dipped into it on Google books and thinking it was good). As a resource, it's useful and gives plenty of food for thought, and since it's well-referenced, any arguments you may have with it can go on endlessly with yourself if you really want to. Like any book it has it's flaws, and I suppose I just really wish they weren't as disagreeable as they seem. On this one, I'd definitely recommend reading before judging.