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Fiction reviews


Fay Weldon - The Cloning of Joanna May

29 October 1989

The Cloning of Joanna May
Fay Weldon

Published in The Age

What a joy it is for that desert-traveller, the book reviewer, to stumble across a master-writer once in a while. And to begin a review by promising himself to abstain from the words "wonderful", "tour de force", and "triumph", if it kills him.

Fay Weldon's new novel is the story of Joanna May, sixty-year-old ex-wife of nuclear magnate Carl May. Joanna was, unknowingly, cloned by the manipulative Carl thirty years ago. So London is now home to four thirty-year-old Joannas - Julie, Jane, Gina and Alice - who, having been gestated in different wombs, know nothing of each other, or their true origin.

Joanna now lives alone in her mansion, with only the gardener (who doubles as toy boy) for company. Ex-husband Carl lives with his young boy toy, Bethany, whose IQ hovers perilously close to the single digit range. Carl and Joanna make contact every so often, in the frank and open manner of modern divorced couples, to try to reduce each other to tears, or suicide:

I am so something, said Joanna May. Ask my lover, he'll tell you what a thing I am, how far from nothing... I have my lover, my young lover, a man a thousand times better than you, who makes me happy and satisfied, which is what you never did...

Then Carl May said in a voice as cold and clear as ice made from bottled water, let your poor old flabby legs be parted by whom you choose, it will be for money, not love - Not true, not true, Joanna May began to say, but of course it was, it was perfectly true - so why, then, she said, it's true for you too you poor old man; and he said no it's not, you poor Joanna May, you female, the music stops for women long before it stops for men, and pitiful and degraded are the ones who dance on when the silence falls...

There are pages of this sort of invective (usually conducted in indirect speech like the above). The cumulative effect is like that of seeing a pestilence called down.

So having defined, with unusual clarity and courage, the pervasive modern belief that older women are redundant, Weldon sets about turning it on its head.

Joanna's four clones start out as variations on oppressed women - the sex object, the battered wife, etc - but presently transform into modern incarnations of the four Queens of the Tarot: the Queens of Wands, Pentacles, Swords and Cups. This is where things get interesting. For Weldon pits female against male in a way which is most unconventional by seventies and eighties standards. Instead of playing men at their own game, the four Queens resurrect historical feminine qualities which male society has sought to repress: solidarity, intuition, and even vengefulness.

On the other hand Carl May - champion of the nuclear industry, murderer of Joanna's lovers, owner of millions of pounds and thousands of souls - seems the embodiment of what happens when male vanquishes female: selfishnes, insensitivity, acquisition, power, glory - and inevitable destruction.

The agents of destruction in this case are Joanna May (the earthly woman scorned) and her four Queens - who seem to represent aspects of the internal feminine denied. In finally tracking down her clones, Joanna quite literally gets in touch with her deeper femininity, and draws the strength from it to overcome the oppressor.

The brutality of male hegemony, and the sheer joyfulness of the female insurgency, are both conveyed with a rare power. Indeed the paradox in Weldon's writing - life's blackness, life's glory - is perhaps at the core of her appeal. It is also reflected in her singular theology:

When I looked in a mirror [Joanna says], I saw a face that would need a great deal more than a jar of wrinkle cream and some exfoliator to bring it back to order. I was indeed old... God's last laugh, imposing this extra penalty on mankind before he flew off, leaving time the murderer behind, just waiting.

Which is offset by the more palatable:

I would define God as the source of all identity: the one true, the only 'I' from which flow the myriad, myriad 'you's'. We acknowledge him in every 'I' we so presumptuously utter.

Men who fear another male-bashing exercise should be reassured: everyone cops a serve in this novel, including feminists. For it is a work of unusual scope. Not only does Fay Weldon elucidate the eternal conundrum of humankind (to protest the universe, or celebrate it?), and the male-female dynamic (only slightly less troublesome) - but also matters as diverse as scientific ethics and magic.

Some will view The Cloning of Joanna May as an "imaginative romp" through the fields of science fiction and black humor. But it is much more than that. It examines how grave threats to human well-being (like the nuclear industry) are justified to a gullible public. It unravels some discomfiting, long-overlooked truths about the nature of women and men. It asks questions that few others are asking, about our headlong rush to fiddle about with genes and human destiny. And most remarkably, by touching on the ancient roots of true femininity, it suggests a path through which some of these horrors may be circumvented.

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