‘The Female of the Species’ – Mindy McGinnis

Although there’s clear warning of the content/focus of this book, I admit to coming out of this feeling metaphorically battered. It’s dark, but oddly compelling, and I find myself confused at having such a positive reaction to characters – particularly Alex – that I should find wholly unattractive.

Even before the story begins it’s hard not to feel sympathy for Alex. She talks about her sister, Anna, giving her advice about growing up and dealing with men. Then she segues into the details she has learned about what happened to Anna on the night she was abducted, raped, brutalised and murdered. Sobering stuff.

To open then with a confession of how she tracks and murders someone (all we know is they had committed a sexual crime) shocked me. Are we dealing with a cold-blooded killer? Is Alex a psychopath? These labels are bandied around and might make it easier to categorise how we react to others in society, but they don’t seem easy to apply to the character we come to know in more depth through this story.

McGinnis focuses on not just Alex but a number of other characters to reference our seemingly toxic attitudes to sex and rape culture. As part of her senior year commitments Alex volunteers at a local animal shelter. Here we see a warm and compassionate character, making friends with preacher’s kid, Peekay, and through this friendship being drawn into the fold of normal teen behaviour. She ends up in a relationship with star athlete, Jack, who is drawn to her even though he has his suspicions of the darkness inside her. Alongside these three characters we have others, but they never really felt developed. They exist to bring about certain scenarios, or to allow our main characters to make a point. There are few adult voices in the book, and though they talk of knowing about things happening they don’t try to stop them…and that makes them culpable for me. I feel they have a duty to try to pass on their experience and advise the younger generation – taking precautions if necessary to keep them safe.

While I feel the topics covered in this book need to be talked about, I’m not convinced it’s fully successful here. We can see the toxicity surrounding many of the female characters, and the perpetuation of awful attitudes. Yes, this needs addressing – but is Alex’s response really the only option? I’d have to say absolutely not. Few characters change their views, and throughout the book there are actions taken that show how easy it is for these attitudes to be maintained if nobody does anything. But Alex’s route is one that cannot be seen to be successful, which seems to go some way to explain the ending.

The ending…a shock on its own. I was expecting fireworks as we could start to see where this might be going, but I’m not convinced the characters used earlier and returned to here would have waited so long for their vengeance. It lent a certain weight to the view that we’re all complicit in such events, even if it’s through inaction. However, the ending seemed a way of dealing with a character that the author wasn’t sure what to do with. On one hand we applaud her resolve to stand up for things she sees as wrong, but her actions go against the structural make-up of our society. She can’t succeed, because that would be a clear sign that we’re very broken.

Trying to write this review has been tough. There was a lot to like about this book, in spite of its subject, and though there are areas in which I feel it could have gone further it does try to make a start. That, for me, counts for a lot.