Upright Women is a thoughtful, provocative work. Sometimes poignant, often wryly, grimly funny, and always incisive, cutting at the heart of the way we see ourselves, the way society shapes us, and the capacity of people to re-imagine themselves. It really is all those things. And they help make it a great book. What also makes it a great book, is it being a dystopian western, where gender-queer spies and six-shooter-toting revolutionaries trickle around the edges of a nation at war. It’s a story which isn’t afraid to grab your attention by kicking arse, and uses the moments when you’re looking to draw breath as an opportunity to ask the bigger questions.
What I’m saying is, this one was a lot of fun to read.
In a sense, the world is a familiar one. You can see the , the cracked gravel trails that a horse-drawn covered wagon down. The sweeping vista of the big sky. We know the big hats, the stars. The lonely, intimate majesty of a campfire shared with travelling companions new and old, airing old wounds and showing older scars. And at the same time, there’s something else. There are sweat-shop factories turning out for drones. There’s diesel fuel going to military convoys rumbling toward a seemingly endless war. There’s fatigue, and a sort of quietly poisonous patriotism. There’s hyper-masculinity, a sense of old horrors brought back out into the night, of women (and every other oppressed group) being dragged back into chains, in a society which is unable and unwilling to understand the convulsions that wrack it within and without.
It’s a world where you can feel the dust in the back of your throat, and see the hugely waving national flags under the scorching sun. Where you can taste fear, and trace the oily scent of power back to men with money, and men with guns.
Esther is our window into this world. A stowaway. A young woman who wants to get as far away from her town as she can. A young woman who is no longer sure who she is, or what she wants to be. A young woman living in the heart of a trauma, used to the ways of a world which demands much from her, a world which is willing to make sure she conforms to it. But Esther is more than the will of a totalitarian state acting on her. She is . And even as the story opens, we can see that Esther has grit, has will, has the fire and energy to become something else. To live a story that isn’t the one expected.
I have a lot of time for Esther, who doesn’t know much about the world at large, but knows how to cook. Who isn’t sure whether stories she’s heard are true or not, but is willing to Who doesn’t know much about travelling backroads, or sedition, or revolution, but knows a good person, and tries hard to be Esther is a heroine whose discomfort, whose discoveries, we feel alongside her. We can see her struggle, see her rise up in the face of adversity, and cheer her on.
In this she’s aided by a delightful cast of cheerful reprobates. They’re by turns hopeful, furious, conflicted, loving – and all the other complexities of the human experience. Gailey can write characters. They come to life before our eyes, with their own quiet stories, with their own hurts, their own needs, their own fierce passions and quiet tragedies. These are people; as they flow into Esther’s life, as they build something for her, with her, and as the wagon keeps rumbling down the trail, we see them as living, breathing souls, who just happen to be in a book. The prose that gets us there is concise yet rich, with a certain poetry living in the quiet spaces between the words.
Which isn’t to say it isn’t also a bloody good story.
I’m always saying this, but, no spoilers here. The broad strokes are there: fleeing into the night. Sudden betrayal. Gunfights. Romance that carries a heat, and also the gentle affection and compassion that makes the heat bearable. More gunfights. . Revelation. Hard riding in a good cause. People being rather sarcastic, and very funny. A fight for truth, for justice, for something better. It’ll grab hold of you and not let go until it’s done, this story. It’s bloody wonderful. If you want to try something new, something a bit special, this is the story for you.