By Ananya Vinay
With every injustice that women face on a daily basis, it is natural to want to burn it all down. Yet, these impulses, for natural reasons, mostly translate into unresolved anger, or more often utopian fiction. That is the case with When Women Were Dragons by Kelly Barnhill, a fantastic and thoughtful work of imagined social history that takes a new approach to female rage. The premise is clear from the title: women mysteriously start “dragoning,” devouring their sexist managers and dismissive husbands. The novel avoids the route of a revenge fantasy, instead telling one child’s perspective of the roiling 1950s and 60s.
Alex is 11 when her aunt dragons, leaving her cousin Beatrice to become her sister and completely denying her aunt’s existence. In this way, the author pulls in the societal squeamishness to dragons, deftly avoided in the same way as menstruation. She herself pushes this topic away for years; instead she finds comfort in the concrete nature of mathematics; when her mother dies, her father refuses to care for her and Beatrice claiming that women have a so-called instinct for housekeeping.
Alex avoids both dragons and anger with a fervor, as though it’s the only way to survive. The novel takes the classical approach of an old woman retelling her experiences in her youth, however this style detracts from the overall effect of the story. It is possible to write a propulsive plot in a manner similar to this, but Barnhill’s choice of leaping from Alex’s freshman year of college to her retirement years is not entirely beneficial. As a reader, skipping over prominent plot points takes away from the effect of the story.
Beyond the story itself, the author invents documents and annals of scientific research for this reimagined period of history. Although these do contribute to world-building in many ways, it wears on the pace of the story. Yet regardless of the plot, Barnhill more than compensates with the utilization of enthralling prose. At one point, she reflects on memory: “It finds the holes in the universe and stitches them closed, tying the threads together in a tight unbreakable knot.” Barnhill’s capacity to find philosophy in the smallest things is unparalleled, and her craft contributes to this bizarre yet fascinating tale. Most of all, she skillfully ponders the role of women and their choices. Alex’s mother knits knots and bracelets, choosing to keep herself in her human life, meanwhile her fierce and opinionated aunt chooses to leave the constraints of the patriarchy behind and take flight. To her credit, the author depicts both decisions with grace, while considering Alex’s resentment equally. She rejects dragons for too long due to this resentment, but one cannot take their eyes away from Alex’s emotional journey.
Yet the most meaningful relationship in this novel is that of Alex and Beatrice. Beatrice’s relentless wildness reminds Alex of the joy of life and gives her something to live for. As Beatrice takes after her mother, Alex struggles with letting go of the only person who loves her, not realizing just how many people are in her chosen family. Letting go is the hardest thing a person can do, and Barnhill truly gives voice to Alex’s fear.
When Women Were Dragons demonstrates how beautiful, pure, and wild anger can be. It is a reminder that pushing our frustration below the surface does no one any good: not us, not society. Alex’s hard-won perspective is told with care by Kelly Barnhill, and this new version of the 1950s and 1960s is a delight to delve into. In our real world, women cannot transform into dragons, but by embracing their anger, women can be wild, free, and honest in who they choose to be regardless of societal expectations.