It has been 34 years since readers last heard from Fay Weldon’s infamous creation – Ruth Patchett, the ultimate she devil. Now in 2017, Ruth has returned. She is 84 years of age, now a dame, and a president for the institute for gender parity.
Her children have (unsurprisingly) not spoken to her for many years. Her husband now lives as a ‘guest’ in the high tower and suffers from dementia (though, as his carer observes, he still recognises his wife well enough and possesses the unfortunate gift of the foul-mouthed gab). The ghost of Mary Fisher haunts the high tower observing the politics and shenanigans of Ruth’s institute.
It seems that Ruth Patchett has indeed reached the end of the road. The ambitious Valerie Valeria, a relative newcomer to the institute, feels she is more than ready to take over the she devil’s mantle. This seems inevitable, until the appearance of Tyler, a young, attractive, twenty something — and the she devil’s grandson.
The ultimate down-trodden male, Tyler has suffered much — his mother is quick to remind him that, had she known he was going to be a boy, she would have aborted him. His sisters have ‘sharp elbows’ too and take daily delight in attacking his masculinity; and worst of all, as a man Tyler is unemployable and must stand passively back while woman take all the good jobs.
When Tyler eventually meets the she devil and it is proposed he transform himself into a woman to become her heir, Tyler concludes that he has nothing to lose and everything to gain. It is a weird and wonderful story that promises to provide Weldon with plenty of hilarious ammunition, but I found this sequel to have all the weird of its predecessor ‘Life and Loves of A She Devil’ but a lot less of its wonderful. In place of Weldon’s usual sharp, effortless satire there is an overuse of jarring obscenities, and while there were a couple of small twists along the way, I felt the attempted build up and climax to be lacking.
However fans of Life and Loves will certainly appreciate the reappearance of characters from Weldon’s beloved original who have aged exactly as readers would imagine. Even in her 80s, Ruth remains every bit the atrocious, scheming she devil; Mary makes for the ultimate ostentatious ghost, and Bobbo is all too believable as the foul-mouthed, utterly unlovable old man.
While many critics have also described Weldon’s gender politics as being ‘confused’, I found her narrative to be reflective of the confusing gender politics of our times, and full of Weldon’s wicked sense of humour. There are no heroes to be found in this novel — Weldon targets smug, ambitious feminists in the guise of Valerie Valeria, who really seems to have confused and indeed the forgotten all about the feminist message. Tyler/Tayla is portrayed as a spineless, unthinking vehicle for Valerie Valeria’s ambitious schemes, and the she devil herself remains the dreadful monster we have come to know from Life and Loves.
While less accomplished than her other works, there is a lot to enjoy in Weldon’s latest novel. If you are interested in the theme of gender wars or just have a great appetite for the absurd then don’t hesitate to pick this up. With Fay Weldon, you are always guaranteed an entertaining and utterly original ride.
Death of a She Devil
by Fay Weldon
Published by HarperCollins New Zealand
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