One look at the cover of Ainsley Hogarth’s new book told me it wasn’t going to be an easy read. The glazed over eyes of the made-up woman in pink invokes a 1950’s aesthetic, one pop culture is determined to keep reviving. From Mad-Men to Desperate Housewives, the dotting domestic goddess is an enduring stereotype which clearly still sells. But in a familiar chicken or the egg scenario, it’s hard to know whether art is reflecting or prefiguring our reality. Should we still be writing books about ‘Normal women’? Even if it is satire. 

With that in mind, Hogarth’s avowedly feminist project is a bit of both. Her protagonist Dani has recently returned to her hometown to be a mother. She spends her days with a childhood best friend and the other ‘normal women’; each of whom are performing an Instagram filtered version of motherhood. Hogarth is adept at constructing dynamic characters out of mundane details, operationalising the feminist dictum that the personal is political. The result is art about almost, but not quite, nothing. 

In between brunches, Dani fulfils her part of the domestic contract. While she loves her daughter, she is undecided on whether her husband is a man worthy of her worship. One minute he is a ‘poor man. A good man deep down.’  The next he is a ‘very, very bad man.’ It is the distress at the heart of Dani which both intrigued and terrified me. She is deeply sympathetic to the plight of men, approaching her husband with an infantilism which expects little of the gender. Yet her increasingly violent oscillations suggest she doesn’t actually believe the party line or accept the mediocre life it has created.  

When Dani fears her husband’s untimely death, and her subsequent destitution, she begins stalking a yoga studio/brothel/religious institution – in the hopes of finding herself a job. The cult leader, a sultry woman named Renata, avows to heal men of their dangerous disconnection from the ‘essential feminine’ by giving them hand jobs, and telling them they’re safe. The theory is the world would be less violent if men got off more.

People like this really do exist in the world. Sometimes they call them INCELS. Hogarth is surely commenting on them and the many attempts by women to curb the shockingly pervasive levels of male aggression we see all around us. But that doesn’t make it any easier to hear, one more defence of a world where women do all the emotional (physical and sexual in this instance too) labour. It feels almost dangerous, to conflate an erstwhile story of female liberation with an avowedly misogynist philosophy. 

As the book unfolds into a half-baked ‘who dun it’ when Renata goes missing, Dani becomes increasingly unhinged. Most of the action happens in her head – the quiet delusions of a bored and lonely woman. Like so many moments in the broader feminist project, the book’s resolution was disappointing. While the first 200 pages set Dani up to reclaim her power in a glorious display of female strength, in the end all the strong women are saved by a man. Dani is just as much of an idiot as she seemed at the beginning. 

If this book truly was the barometer for ‘normal’, I would stick my head in a toilet right now. I’m going to give Hogarth the benefit of the doubt and suggest that was the point. To make me feel this angry about how little has changed; to hold a mirror up to our complicity in a system which hurts so many people. I hope so, but I’m not totally convinced. 

NORMAL WOMAN by Ainslie Hogarth was published by Atlantic Books. 

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