cover image I Who Have Never Known Men

I Who Have Never Known Men

Jacqueline Harpman. Seven Stories Press, $22 (206pp) ISBN 978-1-888363-43-2

An account of a near future on an unknown planet where 40 women are imprisoned in underground barracks guarded by mysterious uniformed men, this novel marks the American debut of a writer the publisher proclaims as a new ""womanist"" voice but who is in fact a veteran French novelist (Orlanda, winner of the 1996 Prix Medicis, etc.). The story is divided in two. It first describes the countless years of the women's imprisonment; then is recounts their fortunate escape and slow realization that they are still prisoners, the only survivors on a barren planet they can't flee. Nonetheless, their new freedom inspires an emotional and intellectual reawakening. The women search for answers to explain how and why they came to be imprisoned; they remember, painfully but fondly, their past lives. The most enthusiastic of them is the nameless narrator, the youngest member of the group. She explores the land, demands that the other women educate her and maintains her curiosity long after her companions have given up. But her insights are neither provocative nor profound, and the authority she assumes rings false. More interesting is her emotional development. As prisoners in the barracks, the women were forbidden to touch each other. The narrator never learns to appreciate fully the new possibilities of physical closeness and remains emotionally unattached to all but one of her companions, who serves as her mentor. But such telling details are rare here. While offering hints and glints of Harpman's talent, this novel proves a disappointing Stateside debut. (May)