Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Book Review: The Woman by Jack Ketchum

I thought Jack Ketchum had gone just about as far as he could go with books like Off Season and The Girl Next Door. Turns out that there are new levels of evil and grotesqueness that I never realized - or maybe I just didn't want to. The Woman is one of the most disturbing things I've read simply for the amount of sin and hellish acts depicted by just about every character.

Many spoilers ahead.

In The Woman, the last survivor of the feral cannibal clan from Off Season and Offspring - aptly given the name "the Woman" - is captured by hunter Chris Cleek. He restrains her in his fruit cellar in an attempt to tame her, with the help of his wife and children.

When first reading the synopses for this book, I thought that the character of the man who captures the Woman would be a normal guy who was really actually trying to help her to stop being a feral cannibal killer. This most certainly turns out not to be the case.

Cleek is in fact the most amoral, evil, and misogynistic person I've ever had the displeasure of reading about (I can't wait to see how angry I get at him when I see the movie). Like I said there are spoilers here, and I just have to put down all the horrible things this man represents and what he does. Let's see... he captures the Woman; chains her in his fruit cellar; introduces her to his family as some sort of trophy; abuses the Woman; rapes the Woman; beats his wife (in front of his children); keeps his 10-year-old disabled daughter chained in the barn with the dogs, letting her become a feral flesh-eater not unlike the Woman herself; has been raping his daughter Peg for several years and has gotten her pregnant; and murders Peg's lesbian teacher by literally feeding her to the dogs. I've left out some little things, but that is the bulk of his evil deeds. On top of all this, he is teaching and encouraging his son to be just like him - and the son happily obliges.

So how could anyone not get angered and/or offended by what they read in The Woman? Is Ketchum simply out to shock his readers with the most vile things he can think of? To a point... maybe he is. It's what has gotten him noticed and sells books, but, and I know I don't the man personally, he doesn't seem like that kind of guy to me. I like books and movies who take things to the extreme, I like people who have the balls to show us the ugly side of things, and not just because they can but because sometimes really profound things can actually be learned. Ketchum proved that with the complexity of The Girl Next Door - another book that on the surface is simply full of cruel acts of torture with no moral compass. But TGND brings up many important moral and societal issues, as does The Woman - so why does it matter what means Ketchum uses to convey these points?

The problem with The Woman, and most of Ketchum's other novels, is that it was too short. I read this book on a lazy Sunday afternoon in only a few hours. And this is a shame for a book with such power - or at least the potential for a powerful message. Many will think that the focus is only on the gore and the continual degradation of the women in the book, but in a strange way, this is can be seen as a story of female empowerment.

Okay, wait, hear me out. This is a common thing with Ketchum's works. He often hides the most poignant messages and insights into society underneath the most brutal stories and unlikable characters. The Woman gives us the epitome of the worst man in the world put up against this physically strong and powerful woman who doesn't really give a shit what he does to her because those things don't matter to her. She's a survivor and a fighter and Cleek is no match for her, despite what his male ego tells him. In the end, all of the women untainted by his evil mindset come out the winners and go on to survive and thrive, living the way they want to.

Fans of Ketchum and gorehounds alike will probably enjoy The Woman for its nastiness, but I'm not ready to dismiss it just yet as nothing but sleaze. Looking deeper, I see something more to it and I hope others do, too.

I'm still a bit confused about the inclusion of the last section of the book entitled "Cow." It is essentially an epilogue, but quite a long one, and though it reveals what I thought the end of the book meant for Peg and the Woman's future, it's an odd way to present it. It's told from the point of view of the women's male captive, and if you've read Off Season and Offspring, you know what it means when this guy is known as a "cow" to the women. Not saying I didn't like it, just that it was different.


  1. 'The Woman' was my favourite read of this year. Like 'The Girl Next Door' the characters actually made me angry, and I properly cheered on The Woman at the end (yes, I cheer at books).

    The film is good too, although I was disappointed that they didn't do 'The Cow' as an epilogue or maybe a DVD extra, aha.

    I hope you enjoy the adaptation, I seem to be the only person I know that actually liked the film :l

  2. Pretty much all the characters in The Woman pissed me off, except the Woman herself. They were either enthralled by Cleek's sick mindset or too much of an idiot not to say anything and put a stop to... well, anything. I was no doubt cheering for the Woman too by the end.

    I really can't wait to see the movie and I hope it lives up to my expectations. I've been fairly disappointed on most of the Ketchum adaptations, though. His work really deserves big screen credit.