Free Press Journal

The Cows by Dawn O’Porter: Review


Title: The Cows

Author: Dawn O’Porter

Publisher: Harper Collins

Pages: 440; Price: Rs 599


Three women, three lives, several intersections. At one point or the other, they have equated themselves, or been equated by others, with the bovine animal, cow. We are then methodically introduced to the three protagonists: Tara, Stella and Cam.

Tara Thomas is a brilliant documentary producer who has been witness to sexism at work for a while; all because she is the only woman in the ‘creative’ team. She is 42, a single mother, never been married, is still looking for love, a father figure for her daughter and a life companion — all three to be preferably the same person.

Stella Davies is a personal assistant par excellence to a brilliant photographer-turned-author, has a steady boyfriend and is struggling to cope with the death of her mother and twin sister Alice — who succumbed to cancer a few years before the happenings of the book. Stella is constantly unhappy, unsure of herself and thinks the wrong twin died.

Camilla Stacey is a 36-year-old feminist blogger-journalist who, unlike most women we know, is quite okay with her big body (she is six feet two) and man-like hands, has no qualms in not-serious dating a man who is eight years her junior. She is also, as she claims, an un-natural blonde, who can pass off as being “from Amazon”.

Some of the characters traits of Tara, Stella and Cam have been drawn from writer Dawn O’Porter’s own life. She, too, lives in London, is a TV producer, a writer-journalist and her mother, too, died of cancer. In the opening page of The Cows, O’Porter gives a mocking dictionary-like definition of a cow, complete with phonetic value. It is a rather in-your-face opener of what the tone of the book could be; a snide commentary on how women are treated in the world—there are the obvious metaphors of meat for sex, heifers and cows for sexually appealing and unappealing women.

But there is a fleeting message, an almost-cry at the end of that definition, that perhaps women should stray from the stereotypes that have bound them in this society. O’Porter’s attempt to push women to not follow the herd comes across subtly — when Cam comes to Tara’s rescue through a blog post; when Stella stops following Cam’s blog because the latter doesn’t make sense to her tortured psyche anymore. Even when the non-conformist attitude by Cam is equally applauded and condemned. O’Porter’s treatment of the subject she tries to address is bold — she has covered in the book by the way of blogs, documentaries, social get-togethers to talk about topical women’s issues. Harassment at work, body image, motherhood, pregnancy, abortion, being single, women’s sexuality — all have found places within the covers of The Cows.

Even the addiction that is Internet has been commented upon. However, as the book progresses, there is an element of unrealism, a sense of let-down that comes from the same characters that were women’s champions in the beginning — even though Camilla, Stella and Tara are as close fictional representation of “real women” you can get — whose lives intersect because of a momentary lapse in judgment by one of them. That said, the intersecting incident, too, has a dubious quality to it. Then there is the unconventional death — which also becomes a cause for media frenzy — that was contrived.

Each woman had a bit of “unreal” touch at least once throughout the book. Those are the times when you would question whether this was the right book to pick. If you are a prude, this book might not be for you; there is a lot of obscenities — verbal and graphic — throughout the book. As Indians, we might not understand a lot of the colloquial English, or the London setting, or even the amount of crudeness that comes across in some of the characters.

It is an immensely enjoyable book — despite some of the contrived sub-plots. This is a book that celebrates all that makes a woman, it is edgy, it is funny and it is also a satirical commentary on our times and how women in society are treated in the 21st Century.

This is also a call-to-arms to all women.

As one of the characters in the book says: “I think women need to stop talking about how hard being a woman is and live by the example they want to set. … The reason men progressed above us in society is because they dominated us with actions and attitude. … To re-address the balance, we have to do the same thing.