Book Review

Review: The Cows, by Dawn O’Porter (2017)

I could not put down this novel. Literally. It’s a 439 page tome and I finished it in less than 2 days. It’s exhilarating. O’Porter’s bold, unique voice has been well known for years from her journalism, and she translates this well into her first adult novel.

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In Tara, Cam, and Stella, O’Porter has created 3 very distinct, but equally strong, feminist protagonists.

Tara works for a TV company, constantly facing snide, sexist comments in spite of the hard work she’s putting into her documentaries. She is trying to manage this while raising her young daughter alone (which is another cause for gossip at work and at the school gates).

Cam is first introduced to us through a blog post about positive body image. Her posts about her sexually liberated, child-free lifestyle garner as much controversy as they do support, but Cam is determined simply to open up the conversations, and to help women to be confident in whatever choices they make.

“I know I have to play a game. I have to entice and provoke. No one wants normal, or sweet and fluffy. People want grit, dirt, drama. But they want it to feel spontaneous, like it’s my real life.”

Stella’s life has been challenging to say the least, and she now faces a huge decision that will test her relationships, her confidence, and could have ramifications on her whole future. She has very specific ways of dealing with this kind of pressure, and won’t compromise them for anyone.

These women are totally different, but what connects them is their determination to live as they choose. This novel is so relevant and timely: in so many societies around the world, women’s choices are coming under overwhelming scrutiny as much as they are being encouraged to be confident and unashamed of their lifestyles.

“I felt like a beacon of controversy glowing in a room full of what everyone else considered normal”

At the beginning of the novel, they are complete strangers, but soon, their paths connect and overlap, in ways that are often unknown to them.

O’Porter explores life (and death) in the digital age with humour and pathos in equal measure. Cam’s blog is the most obvious example of that – we see how writing for an online audience both empowers women (Cam is very independent and incredibly successful), but also it can pit women and their choices in opposition, particularly attitudes towards motherhood.

One of our protagonists accidentally goes viral (caught in a very compromising situation) and her life changes drastically overnight. It’s so difficult not to laugh, but we’re also asked the question ‘Is it right? Who is anyone to judge her?’

“Debauchery is all around. It only matters if you’re unlucky enough to get caught.”

Another woman is keeps logging in to her late sister’s Facebook account, just so she can see her ‘online’, pretending for a few hours at a time that she is still alive. That story is heartbreaking, but also frustrating. I felt like I wanted to talk to her myself, help her come to terms with her grief in another way.

Online trolling and personas; unusual and imperfect friendships; spaces to be open and creative, to debate and empower – all of these aspects of life with the Internet are handled with a sensitivity that was never cloying or clichéd.

I think that’s what I found most enjoyable. Boundaries are pushed; difficult questions are asked (of the characters and of us); characters go to dark places resulting some sensational, shocking moments. Yet every emotion felt real – like it could be happening to someone living next door. I didn’t find any of the portrayals or stories preachy, or that the tongue-in-cheek humour was overdone. All of our protagonists are successful and independent in their own way, but they also have struggles and insecurities that they are dealing with. ‘Don’t follow the herd’, one of the recurring ideas in the novel, is an equally challenging concept as it is empowering.

Nor are men painted as total villains: there are chauvinists, controlling personalities, easy-going types, and guys lacking in confidence. We see how men can be as much victims of women’s decisions, expectations, and judgments, as women are of men’s.

“He is supposed to be the strong one. He is supposed to take care of me, to make me feel better. That is who I thought I was moving into my home.”

Instead of placing men and women on strictly opposing sides, O’Porter just shows them to be people: people whose feelings and ambitions are equally valid; people who make mistakes but continue trying to move on.

It all just felt balanced.

The writing style was so accessible, and I loved the inclusion of blog posts and text messages. O’Porter captures the multiplicity, speed, and chaos of our interactions really well – whether face-to-face or through screens, we’re constantly communicating with people, absorbing messages, visiting places, but barely notice because it’s just a part of life.

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Tension was built up almost invisibly. I could sense that something would happen but what or concerning who was impossible to guess, so I just had to keep turning the pages.

I can definitely see instances where readers might find it extreme or too sensational, but personally, I found The Cows exhilarating: as thought-provoking as it was hilarious. It’s a very interesting take on how we live and interact in the digital age.

 

Thanks for reading my review. Let me know what you think – have any of my lovely followers read The Cows yet?

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