Kingdom of Women
By Rosalie Morales Kearns
Jaded Ibis Press, 2018
290 pages, $17.99
Review by Dr. Suparna Banerjee
As we know, the varied and the very popular literary field of “the fantastic” has been especially amenable to women’s reflective visions of the future world. Speculative novels imbued with feminist consciousness, like Charlotte Gilman’s Herland, Joanna Russ’ The Female Man, and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, have become modern classics, offering utopian or dystopian visions of the near future that have felt both fantastic and familiar. Rosalie Morales Kearns’ debut novel Kingdom of Women is a worthy addition to this sub-genre of modern fiction. It deftly carries forward the legacy of covert, intelligent social critique commingled with gripping fabulation that has characterized the best of “feminist utopia” since Herland.
Set in the women’s republic of Erda, once North Dakota, the novel narrates events in and around the life of Averil Parnell, a female Catholic priest, who is the lone survivor of a massacre that killed her sister seminarians at the ordination decades ago. It is a world in which bands of armed vigilante women go about avenging the wrongs suffered by fellow women at the hands of male persecutors—rapists, molesters, blackmailers, cheats, and other abusers of (gender) power. Naturally, it is a world that is vivid with violence and sex, forced and otherwise. It is also, oddly but seamlessly, a narrative universe replete with reflections, both authorial and character-driven, on issues of philosophical and psychological import.
These reflections grow organically as part of the narrative that brings out the myriad tensions in the life of the protagonist Parnell even as she negotiates conflicting impulses and battles inner uncertainties. Broadly speaking, these uncertainties germinate in the conflict between religious teachings and human needs. Thus, even as Averil negotiates the ethical opposition between the Catholic dictum of forgiveness and the human need for vengeance, the storyline also unfolds through another, more mundane dissonance—that between her vocation as a Catholic priest and her sexual attraction to a handsome, rascally young man she cannot resist.
In a way this tension between the tenets of organized religion and the compulsions of being human is struck at a point in the narrative when Averil is not yet a priest. At this time in her life she is a bright, rising academic living with her Jewish partner Asher Rothenburg. This apparently harmonious relationship ends abruptly as she deserts her lover on the eve of the mass ordination ceremony for the first batch of women priests—of which she intends to be one. As she prepares inwardly for a life of loveless chastity, the man-made dualism between religion and common humanity is embodied subtly in the narrative.
What will particularly stay with the reader is the build-up to the day when Averil leaves Asher with a false promise to return that night. When she says, “We’ll meet tomorrow, of course” as if “nothing would happen in between,” we feel the strife between her passion for her chosen vocation and her very human attachment to her lover. Throughout the episode the pain of her finite heart that yearns in vain to reconcile the two is as palpable as her steely resolve and her failed cunning. For Asher sees through her subterfuge and, without any drama, leaves the apartment in Averil’s absence, leaving a note for her that asserts, simply, “I am not a sin.” The life-negating nature of the twin requirements of celibacy and doctrinaire anti-Semitism is thus highlighted with a minimalistic touch of wit and insight that is one of the prime characteristics of the narrative. While handling this episode of Averil’s life, Kearns also underlines the duplicity that organized religion is apt to generate even in the very people who preach morality to mankind. Thus, we see Averil’s octogenarian mentor priest, Monsignor Riggio, caution her against being careless to popular opinion while trying to accommodate her human needs: “A word of advice, Averil, for when you join the priesthood. If you’re going to have a lover, be discreet about it. And for God’s sake don’t make it a Jew.”
This dualism between dictum and desire gets a more pronounced and protracted expression in Averil’s life as a Catholic priest. Even as her mysticism, her apparent calm, and her celebrity as the lone surviving female priest create a cult following for her, she is racked by the inner strife between physicality and religiosity. Indeed, one of the most vital things about Kingdom of Women is the way Kearns brings out Averil’s struggle against her own flesh, giving us, in the process, a vividly convincing portrait of the woman as a sexual being. That the woman in question happens to be an intellectual with a “fine mind,” that her physical attraction to John Honig as a male is laced strongly with repulsion to him as a man, and that her sexuality clashes with her vocation—these make the portrait riveting for the reader.
Then there is the equally powerful conflict between the Christian imperative of practicing forgiveness and the human thirst for vengeance. As a woman who has witnessed a mass slaughter of innocent women by rabidly misogynistic men—as a priest who needs to counsel wronged and damaged women seething with righteous anger—Averil must grapple with this dilemma in both the professional and personal realms. And while she advises compromise solutions like burning effigies of misogynistic men, she remains skeptical and finds herself getting involved with clandestine vigilante women gangs. In fact, despite the dilemma within her in choosing between justice and mercy, Averil comes to find herself central to a growing global feminist backlash against male violence and gender inequities. It is by way of such associations that she comes into touch with Catherine Beck, an ex-Marine and now one of the combative women helping others get even with their oppressors. The sort of relationship that develops between this intelligent and spunky woman, fond of Averil and critical of her affair with John, is interesting for the undertone of mutual attraction between them, although Kearns stops short of suggesting a lesbian bond.
The Hopkinesque conflict in Averil between a love of life in the world and a dedication to divinity resolves itself in a way through the troubled woman priest’s delight in nature and in ambient life—a delight that is almost childlike in its spontaneity. Thus, one memorable scene early in the novel shows her impulsively embarking on a spree of swinging, matching rhythm with a child on another swing beside her, even as the narrative reports the spirits of dead monks looking at her with disapproval: “How undignified, they thought.”
This un-priestly, “undignified” nature of the protagonist—her relative obliviousness to appearances and her pristine capacity for joy—makes her character realistic and charming. Her proclivity toward introspection lets the author bring alive her rich yet troubled mental life. The character of Catherine, in many ways a foil to Averil, is also finely sketched, and John Honig, with his wry humor and impeccable cunning, is an interesting portrait of the practiced seducer. The presence in the narrative of the spirits of dead male monks—whom Averil hears in her head—functions effectively as a Greek chorus, commenting on Averil’s character and actions and presenting the patriarchal perspective that is “normal” to the world we actually inhabit.
It is this “normalcy,” this societal complacency over gender hegemony, that the novel calls into question. The ex-Marine Catherine harps on the normalization of gender inequity in patriarchy—something that drives vital women to violence—when, toward the end of the narrative, she says to her doctor, “You know, I never felt more alive than during combat. . . . There’s something wrong with a society like that, wouldn’t you say?” The question obviously is put as much to us as to the doctor, and we are left wondering why female energy and self-belief must be either suppressed or channelled into violence in the societies we create and inhabit.
Technically, Kingdom of Women juggles different points of view and spans different time-frames, giving us an immersive picture of Averil’s life as both an academic and a priest, and also an account of the world of Erda after she is dead and has taken on mythic status. It ends, expectedly, not with closures but with questions that remain open to debate.
In all, Kingdom of Women is a rewarding, if also slightly demanding novelistic experience, not only for feminist women but for all thinking people. The prose style, suiting itself to the voice and the context, is at times taut and smart and at times liltingly lyrical. The language maintains a balance between lofty literariness and conversational panache. The wealth of scriptural allusions woven into the narrative by way of direct quotations as well as ruminative references might, at times, detract from the ease of reading the book. However, given that the protagonist is a learned Catholic priest and that the main theme in the novel is a tussle between religious teachings and human impulses, this theological intertextuality is understandable.
Against the backdrop of the global #MeToo movement, which has brought to the fore both the abuse of male power endemic to patriarchy and the repressed female desire for vengeance, Kingdom of Women feels like a speculative comment—equal parts utopia and dystopia—on our times. More broadly, in the context of the rapid global rise of the political far-right, with the attendant erosion of the liberty of the private individual, especially of women and minorities, this novel appears rather timely and topical. The recent declaration by the Pope of the Roman Catholic Church that the religious establishment should make more room for women chimes ironically with the basic premise—the mass killing of the first female priests—around which the novel is woven.
Indeed, to this critic, based in India, the thematic topicality of the novel is especially keen. Following a historic apex court ruling allowing women of reproductive age to enter the hallowed precincts of the Sabarimala temple, so-called mass protests, fanned by far-right Hindu groups, have been rocking the southern Indian state of Kerela. Thus, I have been reading Kingdom of Women even as news of women journalists being escorted by armed police to the temple, and of ordinary women fainting under the stress of being at the center of mob-police battles kept making headlines in the media. The sort of immediacy this gave to my experience of the novel made me realize anew how contested and how symbolically freighted an institution organized religion is. Indeed, institutionalized religion can justifiably be viewed as one of the last of the patriarchal bastions—along with the military—that are still more or less untouched by the rise of women in the world. As such, it is a theme that lends itself richly to the sort of speculative vision Kearns projects in the novel—a vision that arises out of a cultural matrix defined both by the advance of feminism and the patriarchal backlash to it. Kearns’ reflective yet fierce debut novel blends these two elements together and turns them to wonderful fictional account.
Suparna Banerjee is an academic author and media writer based in India. She has published extensively on gender issues and on Indian politics in frontline scholarly and popular platforms and is the author of Science, Gender and History: The Fantastic in Mary Shelley and Margaret Atwood. She currently teaches English literature in Bengal and can be reached at email@example.com.