My Nemesis by Charmaine Craig: ‘An insult to womankind’

Cover image for My Nemesis by Charmaine CraigA proof of Charmaine Craig’s new novel turned up shortly after I’d mentioned it in my March preview, neatly solving the ‘what to read next’ problem. Craig’s book is a novella, and a brief one at that, which had me assuming that I’d be facing the same dilemma shortly, but it took me quite some time to read and think about it. My Nemesis explores ideas about feminism and femininity through Tessa and Wah, two women who apparently hold diametrically opposing views on the subject.

With the first lines of Charlie’s admiring letter, I understood that our minds could keep a certain rare company.

Tessa is a successful writer, a memoirist who writes about her own experiences viewed through the lens of Albert Camus’ moral framework. When an academic specialising in Nietzsche writes to her after reading one of her books, an intensely cerebral relationship begins. Tessa and her husband invite Charlie to visit them and Charlie returns the invitation when Tessa’s lecture tour takes her to LA where she meets his wife. These two women are apparently polar opposites: Tessa a feminist with firm views about how women should live and Wah a mixed race woman who appears happy to take on a domestic role while Charlie pursues his career. Wah quietly sets about making everyone comfortable, introducing Tessa and Milton to Htet, the trafficked, sexually abused teenager she and Charlie adopted, she with more enthusiasm than him. One evening, tongue blunted by too many martinis, Tessa tells Wah that she’s an ‘insult to womanhood’, an accusation which provides the starting point for Tessa’s account of this difficult relationship and the tragic events that have led her to where she is now.

Something terrible infected the air between them. They couldn’t speak two words without becoming sick with the threat of their differences.

Craig’s novel is a masterclass in narrative voice. Tessa is infuriating: pompous, self-regarding, judgemental and unable to read other people. Her thinking is rigid and unreflective until events force her to reassess her attitude to Wah. Despite her protestations that her relationship with Charlie is entirely intellectual, it’s clear that she wishes it were otherwise. Her self-deception is evident in all her relationships, from her emotionally neglected daughter to Milton, the husband she draws into her relationship with Charlie, not to mention Wah with whom she’s locked into an unacknowledged rivalry with a distinctly racist undertone. There’s a good deal about Camus and Nietzsche which went over my head but that didn’t detract from my enjoyment of a novel which left me with a good deal to think about. A very smart piece of writing whose foreshadowing of disaster had me gripped in a way I wasn’t expecting.

Grove Press UK: London 9781804710227 208 pages Paperback

10 thoughts on “My Nemesis by Charmaine Craig: ‘An insult to womankind’”

  1. This does sound good. As a feminist myself of long standing, I think the tendency of some feminists to put down women who decide to pursue a more traditional female role is well worth examining. One for the wish list!

  2. She does sound an interesting character even if not a particularly likeable one. I thought Camus and Nietzsche might be easier to handle in fiction but looks like one’s struggle with them will be a continual one–may be one day there will be epiphany!

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