Taylor, Josephine. Eye of a Rook. Fremantle Press, 2021. RRP $32.99. 232pp. ISBN: 9781925816716
Web Editors’ Note
We’re aware that this is becoming a pattern, and that we have a conflict of interest when pursuing reviews for our editors. Jen Bowden, however, does not, and we’re very grateful to her for helping us surprise three of our editors with a review.
Please forgive us the indulgence (again),
Chris Arnold and Melissa Kruger
It is satisfying, to say the least, to come across a book that is not only an engaging read but that also gives the reader plenty to think about. Eye of a Rook by Josephine Taylor is a rich and passionate exploration of female bodies and lives, and how even women’s most private and intimate experiences can swiftly become subject to public discourse.
Eye of a Rook follows Perth writer and academic Alice Tennant, a newlywed who begins experiencing unexplained pain in her vulva and vagina. Entwined in her story is the narrative of Emily Rochdale, also a victim of this mysterious pain but in the male-dominated world of Victorian London. As both Emily and Alice seek medical advice, it becomes apparent that though they exist years apart, their experiences aren’t really that different.
Questions around female experience, femininity and gender roles are at the heart of this finely crafted debut novel. Alice’s narration of her own story makes the fact that Emily’s is narrated by her husband, Arthur, all the more meaningful. It is he who makes the decisions and he, not Emily, who is advised by the doctor after she is examined.
Arthur does not wish to understand. To what strange desires and unnatural behaviours has his Emily been made to confess? Arthur would like to strike this interloper. Rescue his wife and never return. He has to remind himself of her unaccountable suffering and the surgeon’s reputed skill. (12)
Arthur is an anomaly in Victorian England. While other men would willingly accept the doctor’s diagnosis of hysteria brought on by excessive masturbation and send their wife for the cure (a clitoridectomy), instead he takes his wife’s side and shows his desire to protect and help her. Arthur’s connection to and trust in his wife is all the more significant in comparison to Alice’s partner, Duncan, a supposedly modern man. When Alice’s pain starts, Duncan is sympathetic, but in time his focus shifts to his own needs:
‘I’m just really sick of this. And I’m wondering how much you want to get better.’ His voice is inflexible. ‘Maybe that doctor was right’ […] She remembered coming home crying, repeating the gynaecologist’s words to Duncan: Do you think you might be dragging this on a bit? (9)
The response of Arthur—concerned, protective, trusting—contrasts with that of Duncan—petulant, selfish, suspicious—and highlights how, for women, times have not changed enough to claim that gender equality exists.
Vulvodynia is a real, little known condition. Taylor has done something really clever in using this to explore Alice and Emily’s relationships with their physical selves. This affliction is the catalyst that sparks the question of who has authority over women’s bodies. It is defined as having no particular cause but the symptoms include immense pain, making it the ideal condition to explore how women are treated when presenting to (often male) medical practitioners with something that cannot be defined. When Alice and Emily seek medical help, both women are subjected to ‘victim blaming’. Since the doctors can’t find the root of the problem, it is implied that these women have brought it on themselves:
It was a mystery that had not been solved by several visits to the local GP. The one who’d diagnosed the urinary tract infection and prescribed a repeat antibiotic; who’d taken fresh samples that yielded no answers. Instead he’d offered her vague reassurances: residual soreness; mechanical urethritis that would ease. And the dismaying suggestion that she had brought this on herself: Maybe the sex could be less rough. (42)
In Alice and Emily, Taylor shows just how easy it is for male voices, opinions and narratives to appropriate female bodies and experiences and mould them to their own agenda. As with Duncan, the male GPs who cannot find a reason for the women’s pain explain their inadequacy by blaming the women experiencing the symptoms. This is their truth; if a man cannot explain it, then it mustn’t exist.
In both of the worlds of Eye of a Rook the female body is portrayed as a physical hindrance to existence. ‘Her vulva felt heavy. It dragged against itself, like the lagging anchor of a boat adrift in a storm.’ (69) Alice’s body is literally and figuratively weighing her down; as a woman she is at a disadvantage by simply having a female body. Emily’s becomes a burden too, she writes of being ‘bone weary’ (138) in her letters to Arthur’s sister Bea. Giving Emily a voice in these letters offers further insight into her experience of this, alongside that of Arthur.
For both women, experiencing this pain brings about a change in them and helps them to understand who they are:
‘But that’s what people do, Duncan: they change. I might have changed now, but I changed when I met you too. I changed who I was to be with you, to be who … what you wanted … that’s what women do, or young women do, maybe. Women who aren’t certain of themselves, who can’t know … people who don’t trust their own judgement.’ (188)
For Alice this change is a revelation, a way to better understanding herself. Though the pain has been physically incapacitating it has been mentally enlightening. For Emily, the pain has led to her focusing—albeit, unknowingly—on herself for once.
It is as if I am waking from the sleep of one hundred years. I see that the world around me has changed; that people have gone on with their lives in the meantime. I realise the pain & my determination to survive it left room for nothing else, not the fortunes of my family, nor the fate of our nation. (196)
For Emily, existing in a society where women are expected to focus on anything and everything other than themselves, has made her realise that in order to endure the pain she has had to look inside herself, to understand who she is and what she is as a woman. It’s the ultimate symbol of the need for self-care and self-preservation.
Taylor’s style is exquisite, detailed and evocative; there is little doubt that she is a skilled and accomplished writer. The worlds and women portrayed in this book come alive in a burst of language and imagery that will keep you reading until you’re wishing for more.
Jen is a writer and journalist based in Perth. She lived and worked in Edinburgh, Scotland for ten years and has written for a number of UK newspapers and magazines including The List, The Guardian and The Scotsman. She previously worked for Scoop Events and in the marketing team at Fremantle Press, and is now a freelance writer and editor.