“The books didn’t help me find a word for myself; my father refused to accept the weight of it. And so I made my own.
I am vengeance.”
If you are a sensitive person or someone who can’t stomach reading about assault, violence and/or drugs and sex, then this is not the book for you. If you are not put off by that stuff (like me), then you will love this book while simultaneously growing angry at the reality.
When Anna was raped and murdered and the killer walked free, her sister Alex takes vengeance into her own hands. When her crime goes unpunished, Alex regulates herself to the shadows, a plain and unremarkable girl who has no friends, because she knows she is different from other people. Dangerously so. But popular jock Jack Fisher notices her. He could have any girl in the school (and does) but he can’t stop himself from falling for Alex, and feeling guilty for what happened the night Anna’s body was found. Peekay, the preacher’s kid, sees Alex too, and they become fast friends after working together at an animal shelter. Circumstances bring Alex, Jack and Peekay together and, while out partying one night, Alex’s violent nature escapes free which alters the lives of these three teenagers forever.
I don’t know where to begin with this review because The Female of the Species was such a gritty and courageous novel; despite the book’s overwhelmingly dense content, I found it flawless and unputdownable. I won’t lie, it was hard work reading this novel – from the sinister, realistic representation of rape culture to the eerie plotline to the unflinching style of writing, McGinnis successfully integrates pertinent real-life issues into a fictional world that the reader can’t help but encourage: a world where a teenage girl goes on a killing spree in order to take vengeance on male rapists, killers and paedophiles.
“But boys will be boys, our favorite phrase that excuses so many things, while the only thing we have for the opposite gender is women, said with disdain and punctuated with an eye roll.”
The novel features three POV protagonists: Claire, also known as Peekay, Jack, and Alex – three very different and flawed teenagers who are drawn to one another. Claire is the preacher’s daughter, whose entire personality and character within the town revolve around this fact; her friends even give her the nickname Peekay: Preacher’s kid. Claire’s boyfriend dumps her for the town’s most popular girl, Branley, and Claire is reeling from the loss of, what she thought was, her first love. Claire’s character was probably one of the most pertinent of the novel as she grappled with her own version of internalised sexism. Claire blames Branley for her boyfriend’s decision to leave her and continually makes sexist comments about Branley. While I detest books that pit women against each other (even briefly and especially over a guy), this was important too, as it reaffirms that women are also capable of sexism. One of the most appalling elements of today’s society is when women fight one another over men – Claire goes through a deep, personal journey (in the most heartbreaking way) and comes to understand the importance of female friendship and women standing up for one another, instead of trying to tear each other down through shaming.
I’m living my life waiting for the man who comes for me like one did for Anna, with hungry eyes behind the wheel and rope in the trunk.
I had a love/hate relationship with Jack. I have never particularly enjoyed the jock character in novels; the character is so stereotypical, sexist and just plain annoying. While Jack’s character emulated that trope, McGinnis also slightly subverted his character in that he has larger ideals beyond high-school. Jack is gunning for valedictorian and wants to get the hell out of his home-town, but he can’t stop himself from falling for Alex who has no plans to leave her small world. His relationship with Alex read a little bizarrely, at least for me. I don’t feel as though McGinnis completely developed or explained Jack’s feelings for Alex beyond him feeling guilty for being drunk and having sex the night Anna’s body was found. Nevertheless, I did eventually come to enjoy their odd relationship, which provided some of the novel’s most heart-wrenching and loving scenes.
By far the most complex and engaging character was Alex Craft. Is it bad if I label her as a new book girlfriend? Alex is haunted by her sister’s brutal murder – she is seen as a strange girl and does not cultivate friendships with anyone at her high-school. Alex knows there is something wrong with her, something that her sister’s murder violently brought out, which is why she detaches herself from the wider society – she is dangerous. I’ve no doubt that, if given the chance, Alex would have grown up and become a female, feminist version of Dexter.
“It’s not the sheep that call to me, but the other wolves. I want to run with them, so that I may tear out their throats when they threaten my flock. But I can’t return to the sheep with blood on my breath; they will shy away from me.”
Despite Alex’s methods in seeking justice for victims of sexual violence, you can’t help but admire her for undertaking such a decision – a decision that so many other people wish they could also pursue, but their conscience prevents them from doing so. This was a prominent element within the novel: the desire for people to act in a violent, hedonistic manner as compared to the way they would actually act.
The best scenes in the novel featured Alex and I am unable to choose a favourite. She had so many amazing soliloquies that thoroughly dismantled rape culture and slut-shaming. I didn’t know if I wanted to high-five her or hug her (though I doubt she would allow that).
“I’ll keep doing it even though she’s not here to defend.
Because there are others like him still. Tonight they used words they know, words that don’t bother people anymore. They said bitch. They told another girl they would put their dicks in her mouth. No one protested because this is our language now. But then I used my words, strung in phrases that cut deep, and people paid attention; people gasped. People didn’t know what to think.
My language is shocking.”
The conclusion of this novel was gut-wrenching. I sat in silence for a full ten minutes after closing this book, unable to come to terms with what occurred. What hits the hardest is the knowledge that there is no other way this book could have ended – any other ending would not have had the same impact.
Despite what my review suggests, this novel is not completely dark. It is, ultimately, a story about hope and redemption, and how we can overcome rape culture, dismantle sexism and bring an end to the insidious side of the patriarchy.