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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

A Woman of the Future

David Ireland

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To purchase A Woman of the Future

Title: A Woman of the Future
Author: David Ireland
Genre: Novel
Written: 1979
Length: 351 pages
Availability: A Woman of the Future - US
A Woman of the Future - UK
A Woman of the Future - Canada
  • Miles Franklin Literary Award, 1979

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Our Assessment:

B+ : compelling, creative take

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Atlantic . 9/1979 .
Australian Book Rev. . 11/1979 Rosemary Creswell
The NY Times . 3/9/1979 John Leonard
The Washington Post . 9/9/1979 Doug Lang

  From the Reviews:
  • "(W)onderfully eerie (.....) Written with a wit as dry as the Australian outback that figures largely in Alethea's fantasies, it has much to say about the nature of our future, our society, and our innate abilities." - The Atlantic

  • "(W)hatever the ultimate implications of his theme, A Woman of the Future is a powerful work, and perhaps we can take heart in the fact that a male writer is attempting so directly to come to terms with the female experience. It cannot be dismissed as trendy feminist tokenism, and should be read and admired for its acute perceptions, not of political and social constructs for which Ireland is so often praised, but of the nature of the existential condition." - Rosemary Creswell, Australian Book Review

  • "On one level, A Woman of the Future, is an extraordinary memoire of adolescence. Indeed, at its most tiresome it is just as obsessed with adolescent sexuality as most adolescents are, and the sexuality itself has a bestial quality. Nevertheless, the feel of growing up is here; the portrait of a devoted father is superb; the school days are fine and scary; the sense of imminence is lyrical. On another level, A Woman of the Future is a meditation on the mechanized welfare state, on the nature of freedom and responsibility, of work and love (.....) On the third and deepest level, it deploys the continent of Australia in the service of myth. Alethea is Australia, untouched in her interior" - John Leonard, The New York Times

  • "The story's momentum depends solely on the progress of Alethea Hunt, from birth through infancy, childhood and puberty, to young womanhood. It is Alethea's world, described in Alethea's terms, and those terms are by no means certain. (...) The true power of A Woman of the Future is in the more naturalistic elements of David Ireland's portrayal of Alethea Hunt, from her encounters with toilet-training and her very amusing confrontation with the concept of penis-envy (a quality she singularly lacks), through her discovery and exploration of her own sexuality, her competitive and successful school career, to her final evaluation of the world she has inherited and her abandonment of both that world and of her human form. It is here, with the impact of an intelligent young woman's recognition of the disturbing and distressing nature of life on this planet, that the novel is most convincing." - Doug Lang, The Washington Post

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       A Woman of the Future is taken from the "notebooks, diaries and papers" of Alethea Hunt -- "mostly papers I've kept, and things I'm remembering here in a terrible hurry" --, arranged in more or less the chronological order of the events they describe, chronicling Alethea's life, from in utero to when she graduates from high school. It is a novel of transformation -- her maturation, from infancy through childhood to the beginnings of adulthood, but culminating then in a final, radical and complete transformation.
       The novel is set in some near-future alter-Australia. There seems to be no real economic worry for anyone any longer, and society is divided into only two distinct classes, a smaller Serving Class or Servants of Society, the professionals (also known as pros) who run everything, and the Free Citizens, the proletariat (proles), whose: "trivial occupations of freedom are their whole life". While this makeup and the functioning of society are not insignificant, Ireland does not dwell or elaborate particularly on it.
       Alethea has a doting and supportive father. (There is some question about his actual paternity -- a one-in-two chance -- but he is the one who filled the father-role from her birth on.) He is an actor, famous for his role in the long-running success Changes, a six-hour play in which he dies in the 243rd minute, and plays a dead man for the remainder of the piece. Alethea's father is the more present of her parents -- including being: "my mother in all practical ways", such as doing the housework. Alethea is conscious that: "My father allowed me full humanity from the first day". As to his parenting-approach:

     My father denied me nothing, his theory of child-rearing had all faith in the goodness of the child. This was a long way from born in sin and shapen in iniquity, but nothing I did was seen by him in such graceless light.
       Alethea's mother isn't absent, but her presence is at some remove. She joins her husband and daughter for dinner -- "they had worked it out between them that a combined dinner would be good for me" -- but doesn't have much to say; she devotes practically all her time to writing:
She was her own woman: she certainly didn't belong to father or to me. We went our own way in the house, taking care not to disturb her. If you went up to her to say something, the aura round her gave you a little push while you were still several meters away, and if you came on despite that, and spoke to her while her pen was busy on the paper, it was most likely that you would get no reply. If she had finished her sentence she might look up and look at you as if she were listening, but her eyes seemed to penetrate your body like those cosmic rays the man put dry cleaning fluid down a hole to catch, and you knew she could see only a vague outline of you, and everything important was beyond.
       Eventually, Alethea's father sets up a shed in the back yard:
     The shed was called Proust, after the redoubtable Marcel, who also chronicled moments of conscious life. We assumed this was what mother did.
       A sense reïnforced by both her parents -- "No superlative was too extravagant for them" -- that Alethea always has is that she is someone special, destined for greater things -- though by her late teens she does begin to wonder what. Significantly, in a society still very conscious of gender roles and expectations -- "I noticed in other people's houses that girls were expected by their mothers to be little ladies, as if nothing had happened, nothing had changed, as if time hadn't passed for a century" --, Alethea is not made to feel or act in any way lesser or different for being a girl; as she recognizes:
     The advantage I had was that I got any color but pink; and where, in a family of boys and girls, the little jobs that crop up are given out, the manly ones to the boys, the soft jobs to the girls, I got any that were going. I washed dishes. I helped father as he mattocked the backyard, I painted a small piece of wall when he painted, I climbed our trees to escape my mother, taking books and drinks and sandwiches up with me to share with the ants and mosquitoes. I played cricket with father, hard ball and all, and kicked a football with him just as if I were a boy.
       In adolescence, sex roles and difference become an ever-greater obsession. Alethea learns about sex -- much about it in the usual haphazard way, from what she reads and is told (including by other children), trying to piece the confusing stray bits together. She explores her own body and wonders about that male appendage, from childhood musings -- "Why do boys' bicycles have a bar, when they have testicles to come down on -- and girls' bikes have no bar ? I wonder if they really hurt that much or if males can't take pain as well as we can" -- to later, more hands-on explorations as to its nature and function, including by closely examining her passed-out father's (going back to her Jane Austen once she's done).
       She pleasures herself, and then also starts having sex -- though more, it seems, from a curiosity about men's obsession with the act than genuine enjoyment, as she doesn't seem to get much out of it. Even when she is treated practically as property, she doesn't object, seeing it as: "a passport to experience", as she continues to try to learn and figure things out, such as who she is and what her future might hold. Men themselves rather disappoint her, as she concludes: "How ridiculous men are", putting all too much credit in the sexual act. As she nicely puts it:
Why, they look for a tunnel into the problem and push a shaft in and make little explosions in it, hoping to blow up the world. But after every calamity and orgasm and the death of part of their world, their problems still remain. They simply do not know what to do with us.
       But, self-assured though she is in so many ways, she also struggles with finding where her way should lead. As she notes well along the way:
     I am sixteen, and in my dreams the thing that calls to me is the most unreasonable thing of all: that I am different, unique, beyond compare. That I am on the edge of something big and don't know what it is. Will I last long enough to know it ?
       Aside from the different society-structure, A Woman of the Future is also set in a world of somewhat changed biology. Veering towards magical realism, Ireland presents characters with unusual growths: a man who has a coffin growing out of his side (which he first repeatedly trims back, before finally letting it grow out); a girl who isn't allowed to touch others for too long, because she begins to grow together with them; the Vaux children, who are allowed to get up and walk around even in class because if they stayed too long in one place their toes began to grow into the ground; a girl who has vulvas begin to grow all over her body; a boy who has willows growing all over his ("He kept his growths trimmed, his parents were reimbursed for cuttings they sent round the country"). Alethea grows up, physically, normally -- until, suddenly she doesn't, the oncoming change she begins to feel the reason for her writing down what she can, collecting her thoughts and old papers. As she is approaching adulthood and finishing school, she finds:
I did not know what was happening, except that I was changing. I was never going to be the same again. The animal within hadn't failed: it was asserting itself, it was taking over.
       A Woman of the Future is a kind of Bildungsroman, one very much focused on experience, with Alethea uncompromisingly -- and largely unemotionally -- open about herself. Though the novel is practically entirely written in the first person -- only very occasionally are others' words presented, as in a few letters written to Alethea --, Alethea seems an almost neutral outside observer of her self.
       It is a long journey of discovery, with Alethea wondering:
     Now that I am a traveler leaving the cold shores of my old self for a shore I do not know, what were those lessons and what have they done for me ?
       Ireland means this also to be a novel about his homeland, about Australian identity. It's not something he presents too overtly, but it's there, throughout -- brought to the fore and summed up in Alethea's reflection:
     The country is a virgin, as I feel I am, essentially. The hidden place in me has not been touched; my trivial adventures have not touched it. Besides, in a larger sense I am not the person who did those things: I am different.
     Am I perhaps Australia ?
       As the title suggests, the novel is about the future -- and the title also implies a new, different one, for Alethea specifically (the potential woman of the future, as she repeatedly considers herself) but also the country (as one of Alethea's teachers observes: "The future is the greatest problem. The future is at the center of Australia's problems").
       The answer, for Alethea, lies within. For all her experience, seemingly making only an impression on her, rather than really affecting her, the radical transformation bursts forth entirely from within. There's a small sense of regret -- "If only I had been able to love. But now, with this unknowable change coming, the possibility of love was behind me" -- but she embraces it; she understands that it is her fate -- even as she does not know where it might lead her.
       It all makes for an odd, powerful work. Both fascinating and disturbing, A Woman of the Future is a very creative vision of both national and personal potential. It's also a remarkable account of maturation, of a girl and then young woman and her growing experiences -- and while not quite a YA novel, it's certainly a book that should appeal to mature teen readers (though many parents would likely disapprove, given the handling of all that sex in the novel).

- M.A.Orthofer, 22 April 2023

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A Woman of the Future: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Australian author David Ireland lived 1927 to 2022.

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© 2023 the complete review

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