Review: ‘The Men,’ by Sandra Newman; and ‘When Women Were Dragons,’ by Kelly Barnhill

But for those who do read it, there are other elements worthy of discussion. Evangelyne’s political philosophy of commensalism — a biological term for a relationship between species in which one benefits and the other is not harmed — is fascinating. The sections in the demonic landscape are tremendously unsettling, and perfectly conveyed. In one clip the men stand stock-still on a riverbank, staring fixedly at the far shore. “Among the frozen humans … horse-sized felines stalk restlessly. An elephantine behemoth switches its tail.” The image begins to rapidly darken and lighten: “We see the shadows of the men and animals turning, lengthening and shortening. At the end, the men are visibly thinner.” These sections are eerie, propulsive and horrifying. The worst thing imaginable happens to a young boy in footsie pajamas. A friend who happened to watch me as I read this section told me my face changed shape almost beyond recognition. It is a book whose disturbing imagination reaches through the page into our world.

Jane’s story too is deeply troubling. At 16, she was groomed by the older director of her ballet troupe, Alain, who taught her to seduce — to abuse — boys as young as 13 so he could watch them having sex. When it came to trial it was harder to prosecute Alain than Jane; after all, he hadn’t touched the victims. Jane is branded a criminal and left destroyed: “I will never be whole, I can never feel good.”

Though the details differ, I too was groomed as a girl by a powerful man in my field with a sexual interest in young boys: Sidney Greenbaum, the Quain professor of English language at London University, who was convicted of his crimes in 1990. I know how it feels when your abuser deliberately cultivates an atmosphere of confusion around appropriate touch; and Newman portrays the mechanics of Jane’s grooming with pinpoint, and queasy, accuracy. The compliments, persuasive adult attention, slowly but inexorably shifting norms, being made complicit in something without the maturity to understand let alone consent to it. Jane’s complex feelings about men haunt the novel: Both her abuser and their victims were male. In the world men are warmongers but also innocent civilians. Men are more often victims of violent crime than women. The harder you look, the more intricate matters between the sexes become.

Things in Kelly Barnhill’s fable “When Women Were Dragons,” on the other hand, are much simpler. In 1955, a “mass dragoning” event turns more than 600,000 American women into giant, fire-breathing creatures who leave their husbands and children. Among them is 11-year-old Alex’s Auntie Marla, the mother of her cousin Beatrice, who comes to live with Alex thereafter. Alex, a physics prodigy whose own mother dies six years later, is a plucky, tenacious heroine, selflessly devoted to Beatrice and undaunted by her dismissive father or pervasive 1950s sexism. Is she too perfect to be real? Probably. But a book in which women spontaneously morph into dragons (amid social pressure to forget it ever happened) isn’t aiming for realism, just delightful fun.

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