Dietland, Sarai Walker’s first novel, is a filling read. Its premise – the journey of a young woman towards accepting her fat body and rejecting patriarchal beauty norms – should promise an up-to-date and nutritious political experience to readers. The cover quotes advertise an explicitly feminist book, and a fat-positive heroine is certainly a cutting-edge choice for a modern and edgier-than-average chick-lit novel. But – if you’ll forgive the overstretched analogy – Dietland is more like a 70s prawn cocktail than a gluten-free vegan Banh Mi. Whilst there is much for readers to enjoy, the politics underpinning the narrative could do with updating.
Plum Kettle is an endearing protagonist whose unassuming presence largely allows the reader to relax into the narrative. Through Plum, readers are taken on a tour of the kinds of experiences most fat, middle-class women living in the developed world could relate to. She wears black, shapeless clothes to hide her body. She regularly endures stares and sometimes outright abuse from strangers. She suffers from a dysfunctional approach to food and eating after years of dieting. And, importantly, she believes that her life – that is, her fat life – is not real. She is waiting for a thin body to transform not only her wardrobe but her social and professional abilities.
Some of the most poignant passages in the book come in the early chapters, when Plum’s long history of self-hatred is explored. She is excruciatingly constrained by her inability to accept her 300 lb body, and her sadness is sensitively drawn by Walker, who rarely slips into sentimentality. Instead, she maintains a dry wit which occasionally ascends to excellent black humour. Walker’s control of the material suggests a great depth of understanding of both the fat positive movement and the origins of the American diet industry. She is also an ambitious writer; in one particularly deft chapter, she explores the history of the fictionalised company Baptist Weight Loss using footnotes interwoven with reflective narrative.
Indeed, Walker seems to want to subvert stylistic expectations as well as provoke her readers ideologically. What begins as a fairly unthreatening chick-lit style exploration of Plum’s life becomes something darker. Journalistic passages are wedged between sections of narrative to enable dispassionate reportage of the events going on around Plum. A terrorist group called Jennifer begins commit acts of increasing violence in the name of fighting misogyny and violence against women. Comparisons have been drawn to Palahniuk’s Fight Club and it is easy to see why: this quite-seductive story, which draws Plum and the reader into a secret feminine world where revenge fantasies can bloom, taps in to pop-psychology, gendered anxieties and punk aspirations in equal measure.
Walker’s novel embraces the topical – she makes thinly-veiled reference to the Murdoch media empire, to real-life rape cases, to the once-popular TV show Felicity, and pillories a lingerie company clearly intended to be Victoria’s Secret. In some of the most satisfying passages, she draws a link between the American media and not only the oppression of women, but a possible solution to patriarchal control. Old ideas of consciousness-raising are echoed in Plum’s world as the attacks by Jennifer start to take effect. A Fox-news style TV presenter even dares to say “The fear of men is ingrained in us from girlhood. Isn’t that a form of terrorism?” When Plum discovers Calliope house, a kind of feminist collective, there are more opportunities for politicising the plot (including a literal bra-burning).
For most of the novel, I was happy to join Plum on her journey towards self-acceptance. Although Jennifer takes readers to dark places – plumbing the depths of violence against women in occasionally disturbing detail – there is an undertone of black humour to anchor the narrative. Ultimately, though, the novel’s dogged reliance on the tenets of second-wave feminism holds it back from a more nuanced exploration of both the origins of gendered oppression and violence, and the diet and beauty industries it sets out to expose.
Plum works online and spends much of her time on the internet; extraordinarily, she never encounters queer politics or sex-positive feminism, nor does she find fat acceptance online. The world Walker creates for her includes only the unenlightened – those who slave and shill for patriarchy (one character declares, ‘all makeup is drag’) – and those who take pride in eschewing ‘fuckability’ altogether. There is no acknowledgement that fat men are also preyed upon by the diet industry, and very little recognition of queer identities. Chillingly, the guerrilla group Jennifer is willing to condemn women it sees as aligned with patriarchy to the same fate as violent men, even resorting to the murder of a female porn star. Reading this novel, I couldn’t help but sense a discomforting closeness to the kind of radical feminist politics which excludes sex workers and trans women and feels, frankly, outdated.
Nevertheless, it is refreshing to find a novel that not only confronts gender politics head-on, but that features so many female characters, many of whom support each other and strive for community. The collective approach to activism taken by women in the novel is not only an homage to second wave feminism, but a glimpse of what might be possible now. Writing that engages with feminism, even in a flawed way, deserves an audience – whilst many will read Fifty Shades of Grey just to pull it apart, few will bother will an explicitly feminist novel such as Dietland, and that is a shame. I didn’t comfortably swallow the ideology of Dietland but I can’t argue with its big, fat heart.