Dietland by Sarai Walker

Review published on August 12, 2018.

I haven’t seen the Dietland television series, so I have had the full unalloyed entertainment of the book with no spoilers given in advance. First, remember the old phrase “fat is a feminist issue”, then recall that this was a phrase from the early 1980s? And that the world has moved on – or has it?

This novel relies on the reminiscences of the life of Plum (Alicia) Kettle, aged 30, and as she constantly admits, a woman with a long standing weight problem. Somewhat bizarrely she has a job with Austen Media who publish a series of beauty and other female magazines. With modern media she can be employed out of the sight of the working world and is employed as a 24/7 responder and foot soldier for agony aunt “Kitty”. On a rare foray into the office she will encounter Julia and, through her, a number of things will evolve and she will meet some other extraordinary women.

But to start at the beginning, weight as such is not a problem, only if you think it is. Plum undoubtedly does. She lives her life looking forward to the time when she has lost her excess weight, so that her “real life” can begin. She has been through a series of diet regimes (described in convincing and often wincing detail) and is now awaiting stomach banding surgery.

By meeting a range of new women – women who have lived either longer and harder – she encounters those who recognise obsession on body image can severely hold women back. Times may have changed, but female equality has actually not evolved everywhere, and weight judgement has morphed into something even more toxic – the requirement for all women in public places to be judged on their “fuckability” quotient. What is the feminist response? Review and challenge. But in this novel, too, a wild card of response or revenge terrorist activities will unroll. These will be interleaved across the weeks of Plum’s tale.

It is hard to reflect the depth and complexities of this book in a relatively short review. This is a brilliant and thought provoking novel for any woman with any iota of political awareness – and any man with curiosity. It seemingly seamlessly melds the personal with the political. It recognises that a life, with habits, beliefs and happinesses (or not), has very deep roots; linking across time and generations. That “women” might live very different lifestyles, have different values – and more importantly – coping mechanisms. That public faces you see, or imagine, might be covering a very different person – and out there women have strong friendships and support networks that are often overlooked.

As Plum, with new support, grows as a woman, the political “landscape” will alter too. The overall question for both is to what and for how long, and will it make her happy. But as we are given a short period in time, the future is open.

I think that this is a novel that will have reading groups discussing (disputing?) for hours. Very prescient on so many things, this is the novel that leaves you questioning how you live your life and deal with both big and seemingly small issues and how you reached now by seemingly simple steps.

Hilary White 5/5

Dietland by Sarai Walker
Atlantic Books 9781782399292 pbk May 2016

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