Title: Native Tongue (Native Tongue #1)
Author: Suzette Haden Elgin
Publisher: The Feminist Press at CUNY
Publication Date: August 7, 1984
Number of Pages: 334
Source: Free / Mailing List
Set in the twenty-second century, the novel tells of a world where women are once again property, denied civil rights and banned from public life. Earth’s wealth depends on interplanetary commerce with alien races, and linguists -— a small, clannish group of families -— have become the ruling elite by controlling all interplanetary communication. Their women are used to breed perfect translators for all the galaxies’ languages.
Nazareth Chornyak, the most talented linguist of the family, is exhausted by her constant work translating for trade organizations, supervising the children’s language education, running the compound, and caring for the elderly men. She longs to retire to the Barren House, where women past childbearing age knit, chat, and wait to die. What Nazareth comes to discover is that a slow revolution is going on in the Barren Houses: there, word by word, women are creating a language of their own to free them from men’s control.
“It’s not that they interrupt, it’s not that they won’t give a man all the time he wants—it’s that they are simply not really there at all.”
I had a difficult time with this book and it’s a shame because I wanted to like it a lot more than I did. I thought that the concept was intriguing and there were times I was genuinely interested in finding out how the plot would unfold; but for a large part of the book I was kind of bored. I think perhaps the characters might have played a large part in this disappointment, there were far too many of them and there wasn’t a single one that I liked even remotely. Here you have the linguist families that, as it turns out, are not so privileged and are in fact hated by many for the amount of control they have over intergalactic business. Then there is the government that tries to replicate what the linguists have accomplished and ride the line of what is right and wrong while on their own crusade. The story almost makes you sympathize with the linguists for the amount of bigotry they face, but then they are just as nasty to their own and treat their women like cattle. There was no one to root for.
I loved the political side plot about the conflict between linguists and humans and it’s a shame this didn’t get explored further. There was just far too much going on as the chapters swing back and forth between the government’s schemes, the linguist leader’s struggles, Michaela’s crusade, and the secret plans of the Barren women. I had hoped that these things would be tied up nicely but really it just felt like these things were all thrown in for shock value in an attempt to create setting. It was unfocused, which only caused more problems on top of the unlikable characters and almost pointless political side plot.
Native Tongue had it’s moments where it was mildly entertaining, but I couldn’t help but feel unsatisfied when it was all said and done, even with the somewhat happy ending for women. I guess this book just didn’t speak to me, I didn’t care for the strictly separatist ideology. I feel absolutely no motivation to continue the series even if it is a classic.
Strengths: Intriguing concept and at times exciting, good world building
Weaknesses: Slow pacing, unlikable characters, confused plot
Warnings: Extreme sexism, child abuse, death
Where to Buy
A big thank you to Amazon’s Science Fiction & Fantasy Newsletter for the free copy!