“The sights and the smells and sounds around me, women and clatters and chatter and colourful fabric, sunlight from the windows and upholstery the colour of jewels – all of it faded away, the world on a dimmer switch, everything reduced to a meaningless gray blob around the outskirts of this text.”
I reviewed Andrea Bartz’ debut novel The Lost Night last year, which was a stunning debut – a page-turning narrative that will continue to linger long after you’ve read it (no easy feat). I fully expected to enjoy The Herd, and true enough I did. The building of suspense and abundant red herrings led me down an enjoyable path of guess-work, never quite pinning down the culprit until the last moments, which is a testament to Bartz’ skill.
Bartz ups the ante from the get-go, choosing to have two narrators instead of one, weaving her narrative around the perspectives of two sisters, Katie and Hana Bradley, both connected to Eleanor Walsh, the founder of The Herd, an elite, women-only working space that prides itself on mentorship and empowerment. The opening scenes involve Katie interviewing with Eleanor to join the space, a space she can use to work on her book, a book that she doesn’t want to write anymore because of a traumatic past event, one that she refuses to remember or think about.
While this constant switch in narrators contributes to the suspenseful spaces of the book, Katie and Hana’s narrative voices don’t always feel distinctly different. This got a bit confusing towards the end because we were speeding up as we headed towards the climax, so I had to keep backtracking to remember whose head I was in.
Bartz allows us to spend some time with Eleanor before she disappears, fleshing out the challenges a woman boss has to grapple with; a man in power is expected, a woman in power has to prove her worth. Bartz includes this interesting article by Katie in the course of the novel, which discusses how things would have turned out differently for Steve Jobs if he was a woman, laying out the numerous instances that would have got him fired. Instead, his antics and ego trips are viewed as genius and visionary.
It’s a difficult thing to be a woman in power, mainly because of the unseen caveats attached to the position. You have to craft an image so beyond reproach; any time there is a chink in the armour or a hint of vulnerability, this is a sign of your lackluster leadership. Too professional and you are viewed as cold, too personable you might find yourself not being respected and trodden on. Eleanor has managed to keep the balance and delivered on the expectation, both a thriving businesswoman and happily married – or so it seems.
“And the one way to win, the one fucking way to be a woman and do well in this world is to stomp on other women’s backs.”
While Eleanor was alive, all we got was the surface, it is only in her death that secrets start to pour out, painting this image of an ambitious woman who had no compunctions stepping on her friends to get to the position she now holds. Bartz very cleverly shows us that this could have been prevented if the people around held her accountable and didn’t just play dead as she steamrolled over them. An individual can run amuck with a pair of scissors in hand, destroying everything in sight, only if we allow them to.
Her parents looked at her like this precious seed, protecting and enabling her so she could succeed, having to live with all the ghosts they helped her bury. Her friends kept silent and didn’t speak out about their frustrations because they admired her and were so afraid of losing her good will. Her relationships with men were also mishandled, which led to hatred and resentment.
I do wish that the community space of The Herd had been developed more. Besides the brief moments we spend with Katie while inside, the novel is more focused on the mystery of who forced Eleanor to kick the bucket. We are given the impression that The Herd is a successful enterprise, since Eleanor is offered a buy-out. Thus, the irony of it all would really hit home if we can actually experience how Eleanor has build a space of female empowerment and camaraderie, while practicing none of her own.
Review copy provided
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