A Woman of the Future, David Ireland

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In the 1970s I was sure that David Ireland (b.1927) would be the writer of his generation, a mantle now surely held by Peter Carey despite how much I have disliked his writing since he moved to New York to be a ‘world writer’. I have said before that I regard Ireland’s The Unknown Industrial Prisoner (1971) as one of our great novels, and I also very much admired The Flesheaters (1972) and The Glass Canoe (1976).

 A Woman of the Future (1979), when I first read it many years ago, seemed modern and exciting, and not just to me, it won the 1979 Miles Franklin Award. But it now appears, to be frank, horrible, with elements of exploitation, paedophilia and incest. Nevertheless, it is probably the first attempt by any Australian writer to imagine an explicitly post-sexual revolution future.

Ireland portrays an independent (adolescent) woman in a near future following both the sexual revolution and an unexplained catastrophe which has left the bulk of the population, the ‘frees’, subject to weird mutations, so that access to the privileged classes is governed both by year 12 examinations and by freedom from ‘growths’. The novel takes the form of notes “left behind” by Althea Hunt during her school years in suburban Sydney.

Ireland takes great care to make Althea the strongest, fastest and cleverest of her class, of the boys as well as the girls, but, as she enters adolescence, what the author attempts to pass off as her independence and sexual insouciance is often the most degrading subjugation to the dominant males. At various times when her father is drunk and/or asleep she experimentally handles his penis, plays with it, sucks it, invaginates him and brings him to ejaculation; in year 8 she goes down to the quarry and a boy takes her because “you know it’s got to be some time, well, this is it”; at the beginning of year 9 this boy sells her to an older boy for $40. “… I took the view it was their private transaction. For me it was a passport to experience.” The quarry is the scene for group sex and multiple partners, where the older children feel it their duty (or privilege) to initiate the younger. At school, Althea is f***d by a sports master simply because she is the last girl left in the changing room after gymnastics; and she is soon taken regularly at the quarry by an older man, a local shopkeeper who takes the time to bring her to orgasm; she, and all women, routinely tolerate being ‘felt up’ in crowds, an echo perhaps of a time not so long gone when girls regularly submitted to over-affectionate ‘uncles’; as Althea says, “There was a great demand for our bodies. We girls didn’t put much value on what our bodies represented: they [boys] did that.” Finally, at a year 12 party she is raped/gangbanged while drunk or in a daze, “the eager young animals that had been at me”, she says. In the last few paragraphs she mutates into an animal, a panther, and escapes into the Blue Mountains.

I re-read this novel to see how it intersected with my idea of the Independent Woman, but from the perspective of the 2000s, the woman of David Ireland’s future turns out to be not so independent after all, or at least not in any way Miles Franklin or even Kylie Tennant would have understood, but just a compilation of all the author’s wet dreams.

 

David Ireland, A Woman of the Future, Penguin, Melbourne, 1979 (reissued in Text Classics)

See Bonny Cassidy’s critique of this review in the Sydney Review of Books! (here)

Lisa at ANZLL struggles to like Ireland but her reviews of The Unknown Industrial Prisoner and The Glass Canoe are well worth reading.

13 thoughts on “A Woman of the Future, David Ireland

  1. I wrote in my review I found this astonishingly tedious at times. As usual there is the challenging thought provoking prose, the usual dark and satirical humour and the comments on society that make the author so attractive when at his best. The satirical use of those of us that are the Frees and those of us that are the Servers is a brilliant concept that differentiates societies classes. But it is the long winded pointlessness of long tracts of the book that kills the idea off for me. The second half of the book goes a touch over board on the act of sex as well. This book was released in 1980 and may have had impact back then but today less so. This was not meant to be a prudish comment. It is just that in todays day and age the shock value is less than it once was. I wonder if this book would even get shortlisted for an award such as the Miles Franklin nowadays and may have been “of it’s time”.

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    • I was 30 when I first read AWOTF and it was a time when I was buying every David Ireland as soon as it was released. It excited me then, literally probably, and I, like the MF judges thought it was an adventurous work. When I re-read it around 2000 I was working on a thesis about independent women and that had the effect of completely altering my perspective. Perhaps the MF judges would still like it today, I think Ireland’s dystopia stands up well when compared with the many women writers who have been experimenting with near future dystopias recently.

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