Thursday, 8 December 2016

Maestra's (Im)Perfect Female Protagonist: Sex, violence, and not much else.

Warning: Here there be spoilers and curse words. 

L.S. Hilton’s Maestra, published earlier this year, was one of those books that I didn’t think had annoyed me – until I started to talk about it. I briefly reviewed it earlier today for my website ( and found myself torn between saying how much I enjoyed it – which I really think I did – and saying how much it annoyed me – which I really think it did. The novel itself isn’t the issue, as such, and by that I mean it’s perfectly fine in terms of how it’s written and even the plot is mostly okay – my issue is actually with the main character, Judith, and Hilton’s treatment of her.

When my other half asked what I thought of this book, I said: ‘It’s okay, but I’d like a chat with the author, I think.’

‘Why?’ he replied.

‘Because I’d like to know what her intentions were with the main character.’

It was an accidentally stiff response, but that’s what my issue boils down to. Judith is a strong character who is defiant of feminine stereotypes, which really, really makes me want to really, really love her. Unfortunately, Judith, in her pull against certain stereotypes, embarrassingly plays into others, rendering her an unashamedly sex-craved woman who seems to have adopted the technique of leaving men before they have the opportunity to leave her – a fine logic for some, perhaps – but worse still, when she is held accountable for this, she fabricates a rape story which she then laughs off – and, while that is a separate rant altogether, that also caused me sizeable issues on reading the book.

For me what Hilton has actually done here is establish a strong and aggressive female character with huge potential, and written her into a plot where she never comes to fruition. The sex scenes throughout are dire and while Judith is meant to be predatory and empowered by her sexual prowess, it actually made me hugely uncomfortable – not because I’m a woman and women shouldn’t talk about sex, far from it, in fact, but rather because the sex scenes are visceral in a way that they don’t need to be. And, to add insult to injury, I refuse to believe that ‘gaping cunt’ is a pleasant phrase to attach to a woman’s anatomy, whether it is a woman or a man that is using such a term. Gaping, I mean; really?

Judith makes no secret of the fact that while she is very much in control of her sex, she also knows its worth. And in this novel, it appears to be worth everything as Judith is surrounded by out of date male characters who have murdered their way to the top, accompanied by women who appear to have fucked their way up there instead.

Yes, empowering indeed.

Admittedly Judith has managed a mixture of both of these things. While she uses her so-called ‘gaping cunt’ to great effect throughout the novel, she isn’t afraid to put a bullet in someone either – which is hugely refreshing (for want of a better phrase, I know) but also hugely downplayed by comparison to the sexual aspects of the book. If Hilton wrote her murders how she writes her sex then I would have probably been much more interested in this. And I don’t care what that says about me as a reader.

Hilton has discussed her intentions with Judith, loosely, in various interviews now, commenting that she wanted a female character who felt a certain way without having to explain those feelings – because men can apparently feel certain ways without explaining it, and as such women deserve the same. She’s right, of course, women should be able to enjoy sex, or violence, or anything else, without feeling obliged to offer an explicit explanation as to why (although I don’t quite believe that men are never held accountable for their attitudes towards these things and that yes, they too sometimes have to offer explanations for why they are how they are). However, that being said, when Judith half-explains her attitude to one of her many lovers in the book by introducing a story of childhood abuse, which she then undercuts with laughter that suggests that the entire tale was a sham, I was in no uncertain terms pissed off. Not offering an explanation for a woman’s sexual desires is one thing – a fine thing, in fact – but toying with an abuse storyline as an explanation, that is unnecessary and untrue, is insulting, and Hilton should watch out for that pitfall in the future.

Brushing off Judith’s enjoyment of sex with a crass, ‘I like to fuck,’ is all well and good, and I understand Hilton’s reasons for doing it. The issue, though, is that it makes for a flat character and a flat back story. Judith is interested in money and sex – and the character as a whole suffers for it. We don’t need an explanation from her – not now, at least – about why she is so sexually fluid, yet aggressive, or why she insists on putting her body through such sexual ordeals. What we do need, though, is a hint that there is a reason for this. Maestra is the first book in a trilogy and as such it makes no sense to give away the punchline for Judith’s behaviour this early – but the book creates this feeling that even Hilton doesn’t know why she’s like this yet, and that, for me, is problematic. I need something more to hang my emotions on than that.

Enjoyable as Judith is as a violent female, she falls short of being remotely inspiring or empowering for me – although there are, allegedly, many female readers out there who feel differently. For me, though, she’s less of a feminist icon and more of a sex-hungry art expert who shags her way through the book, making no emotional attachments with any of the men who cross her bed sheets as she goes – which may make her the ideal woman. But, who for?

1 comment:

  1. Fab book title, shame the book doesn't quite manage to live up to it...