Books

Mrs Gulliver by Valerie Martin review – finding agency in a patriarchy

The Women's Prize For Fiction prize-winning novelist's new book focuses on the inequality of power

Its title may be Mrs Gulliver but – set on tropical ‘Verona Island’ and with epigraphs from Romeo and Juliet – Valerie Martin’s new book owes more to Shakespeare than Swift. In this hymn to carnality, the not-so-star-crossed lovers are Carità, a blind prostitute, and Ian Drohan, the rebellious son of a judge, determined to save her. All the harbingers of doom are present – an impetuous killing, a banishment, a priest, a dose of belladonna – yet the narrative arc bends towards the happy-ever-after of The Tempest

Like Property – Martin’s Orange Prize-winning novel about a southern belle on a Louisiana sugar plantation – this book is about inequality of power. Mrs Gulliver started her career in a whorehouse known as The Tackle Shop. Now she runs her own establishment with a classier clientele and regular health check-ups. Still, it exists in a context of patriarchy – a world in which brothels are legal but abortions are not, and where the girls are ripe for exploitation. 

When Mimi, a politics student and sex worker, tells Carità about Marx and the chasm between those who own the means of production and those who have nothing to offer but their labour,” Carità answers: “Well, that would be us.” Yet Carità is no revolutionary; she loves money, and if she is going to escape her situation, it will be by acquiring some. Nor is she willing to exchange the subjugation of the brothel for the subjugation of a marriage founded on her helplessness.

Mrs Gulliver is not a novel shot through with beautiful language; indeed, some of the writing is surprisingly pedestrian. But it is a quirky and enjoyable twist on an old story, with plenty of plot and thematic oomph.  Rich in unabashed raunchiness, it toys with feminist tropes and hands us a heroine who is superficially fragile, yet very much in command of her own destiny.

Dani Garavelli is a journalist and broadcaster.

Mrs Gulliver by Valerie Martin is out 7 March (Serpent’s Tail, £16.99). You can buy it from The Big Issue shop on Bookshop.org, which helps to support The Big Issue and independent bookshops.
This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine, which exists to give homeless, long-term unemployed and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income. To support our work buy a copy!
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