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"As far back as I can recall, I have been in the bunker." A young woman is kept in a cage underground with thirty-nine other females, guarded by armed men who never speak; her crimes unremembered... if indeed there were crimes. The youngest of forty - a child with no name and no past - she survives for some purpose long forgotten in a world ravaged and wasted. In this realit "As far back as I can recall, I have been in the bunker." A young woman is kept in a cage underground with thirty-nine other females, guarded by armed men who never speak; her crimes unremembered... if indeed there were crimes. The youngest of forty - a child with no name and no past - she survives for some purpose long forgotten in a world ravaged and wasted. In this reality where intimacy is forbidden - in the unrelenting sameness of the artificial days and nights - she knows nothing of books and time, of needs and feelings. Then everything changes... and nothing changes. A young woman who has never known men - a child who knows of no history before the bars and restraints - must now reinvent herself, piece by piece, in a place she has never been... and in the face of the most challenging and terrifying of unknowns: freedom.


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"As far back as I can recall, I have been in the bunker." A young woman is kept in a cage underground with thirty-nine other females, guarded by armed men who never speak; her crimes unremembered... if indeed there were crimes. The youngest of forty - a child with no name and no past - she survives for some purpose long forgotten in a world ravaged and wasted. In this realit "As far back as I can recall, I have been in the bunker." A young woman is kept in a cage underground with thirty-nine other females, guarded by armed men who never speak; her crimes unremembered... if indeed there were crimes. The youngest of forty - a child with no name and no past - she survives for some purpose long forgotten in a world ravaged and wasted. In this reality where intimacy is forbidden - in the unrelenting sameness of the artificial days and nights - she knows nothing of books and time, of needs and feelings. Then everything changes... and nothing changes. A young woman who has never known men - a child who knows of no history before the bars and restraints - must now reinvent herself, piece by piece, in a place she has never been... and in the face of the most challenging and terrifying of unknowns: freedom.

30 review for I Who Have Never Known Men

  1. 5 out of 5

    Amalia Gkavea

    ‘’My memory begins with anger.’’ Yes, I found a Dystopian novel I love more than 1984 and The Handmaid’s Tale. Forty women live in a prison cell. The world as we know it doesn’t exist anymore. People have been imprisoned and the guards are watching them non-stop. How did the women find themselves there? Why? Where are they? What destroyed every social structure we have taken for granted? Is this Earth or another planet? No one can answer these questions and the days pass in terror and silence. Th ‘’My memory begins with anger.’’ Yes, I found a Dystopian novel I love more than 1984 and The Handmaid’s Tale. Forty women live in a prison cell. The world as we know it doesn’t exist anymore. People have been imprisoned and the guards are watching them non-stop. How did the women find themselves there? Why? Where are they? What destroyed every social structure we have taken for granted? Is this Earth or another planet? No one can answer these questions and the days pass in terror and silence. The youngest woman is the one that tries to understand, her spirit still unbroken. The women are using their hair as thread because every tool is forbidden. No one can console a crying child because they aren’t allowed to touch each other. You are not allowed to stay awake when sleep refuses to come. There is no 24-hour day. No religion to give you comfort. You can’t feel the wind or the rain. You can’t see the moon and the sun. You have to urinate and defecate in public. You are not allowed to kill yourself. ‘’ I know only the stony plain, wandering, and the gradual loss of hope. I am the sterile offspring of a race about which I know nothing, not even whether it has become extinct. Perhaps, somewhere, humanity is flourishing under the stars, unaware that a daughter of its blood is ending her days in silence.’’ Harpman’s writing excels when the women are suddenly free. And this is not a spoiler because the heart of the story can be found after this pivotal moment. It is exactly then that everything becomes more frightening, when the struggle for survival in an unknown world begins. The youngest woman has to learn all there is to know about her body, language, everything the rest of the women can recall from a life wrapped in mists, long and forgotten. But what happens when it is your spirit, not your body that needs nourishment? The prose is exquisite, the dialogue is sparse, poetic and cryptic. There is a tranquility and a subtlety that reminded of The Handmaid’s Tale and even the hardest moments are described almost melancholically. There is no vulgarity, no shock for the sake of it. We often use the words ‘’raw’’ and ‘’haunting’’ and they are absolutely suitable to characterize this novel. Don’t look for pseudo-feministic messages or divisions between the two sexes, this isn’t such a story. This is about freedom and survival and hope and these notions weren’t created exclusively for women or men. In that sense, the title is a tiny bit unsuccessful. I would be negligent if I overlooked the beautiful and poignant introduction by Sophia Mackintosh. For me, this novel is equal to The Handmaid’s Tale. Possibly even better I really love Atwood’s classic. There are so many intense moments and such a rich narrative of a community populated only by women while Death is all around. This novel made me experience feelings that no other dystopian novel ever did. I would compare it to Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel and Into the Forest by Jean Hegland in terms of atmosphere and tone. I sincerely hope that it will become more appreciated with the new paperback release because most of us weren’t even aware of its existence. Perhaps its themes aren’t loud enough or feminist enough to follow the new cultural reality and become a TV-series of dubious quality but it is a masterpiece. The final pages verify it. ‘’ All of a sudden, I found myself at the top. I was in what we later called a cabin, three walls and a door, also open, the plain spreading out before me. I bounded forward and looked. It was the world.’’ Many thanks to Penguin Random House UK and NetGalley for the ARC in exchange for an honest review. My reviews can also be found on https://theopinionatedreaderblog.word...

  2. 5 out of 5

    Emily B

    I found this book when aimlessly browsing for available books on my library app. I’m so glad I did and added it to my favourite list straight after reading. I loved so much about it including the subject matter and the length. It felt unique, fresh and mature. Although there is no real explanation of events, which would normally drive me mad, I still enjoyed it immensely. This may be due to reading the introduction which was somewhat revealing and prepared me to not expect any explanation of the I found this book when aimlessly browsing for available books on my library app. I’m so glad I did and added it to my favourite list straight after reading. I loved so much about it including the subject matter and the length. It felt unique, fresh and mature. Although there is no real explanation of events, which would normally drive me mad, I still enjoyed it immensely. This may be due to reading the introduction which was somewhat revealing and prepared me to not expect any explanation of the characters predicament.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Jess

    ‘I was forced to acknowledge too late, much too late, that I too had loved, that I was capable of suffering, and that I was human after all.’ Viscerally disturbing, elegant and dignified. Better even than The Handmaid’s Tale. This is the most haunting and thought-provoking book I have read in a very long time. Harpman’s prose is stark and stylistically perfect, charged throughout with an agonising inexorability. It’s a powerful concept besides: a slim dystopian novel narrated by an anonymous woman ‘I was forced to acknowledge too late, much too late, that I too had loved, that I was capable of suffering, and that I was human after all.’ Viscerally disturbing, elegant and dignified. Better even than The Handmaid’s Tale. This is the most haunting and thought-provoking book I have read in a very long time. Harpman’s prose is stark and stylistically perfect, charged throughout with an agonising inexorability. It’s a powerful concept besides: a slim dystopian novel narrated by an anonymous woman, whose only life she has ever known is that of being locked in a cage in a bunker with thirty-nine other women. Her narrative is deeply introspective, despite her complete and utter inexperience. And regardless of her intense capacity for emotion, she is convinced she is not entirely human. At once exquisite and devastating, I am at a loss to understand how this has not reached a wider audience. I Who Have Never Known Men is a profoundly sad novel that revels in its ambiguity.

  4. 4 out of 5

    Susan

    This is an interesting, but somewhat frustrating read. It opens with our unnamed narrator – one of a group of women imprisoned in a bunker and guarded by men. The other women remember something of life before, but our narrator does not. In essence, her whole life has been spent as a prisoner. It is difficult to say more about this novel, without giving away what happens, and I have no wish to do that. Not that this is an action packed read; more a philosophical musing on what humanity means. How This is an interesting, but somewhat frustrating read. It opens with our unnamed narrator – one of a group of women imprisoned in a bunker and guarded by men. The other women remember something of life before, but our narrator does not. In essence, her whole life has been spent as a prisoner. It is difficult to say more about this novel, without giving away what happens, and I have no wish to do that. Not that this is an action packed read; more a philosophical musing on what humanity means. However, I found this a somewhat uninspiring read, to be honest. That is not to say that it won’t inspire you as a reader, but I just found myself left with more questions than answers. I would suggest that, should you read this edition of the book and are reading it as a novel, as opposed as for study, you leave reading the introduction until after you have read the book. It not only tells you about the author, and the background of the novel, but everything that happens. I received a copy of this book from the publisher, via NetGalley, for review.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Sandi

    I read this book about seven years ago and still think about it to this day. It is like nothing I've ever read before or since. The concept is simple yet profound. The writing (I believe it was translated from the french original but I could be wrong) is stark and simple, fitting the story perfectly. I can't recommend this book enough. I read this book about seven years ago and still think about it to this day. It is like nothing I've ever read before or since. The concept is simple yet profound. The writing (I believe it was translated from the french original but I could be wrong) is stark and simple, fitting the story perfectly. I can't recommend this book enough.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Katie Khan

    “I was forced to acknowledge too late, much too late, that I too had loved, that I was capable of suffering, and that I was human after all.” Wow. I went into this knowing nothing and was blown away by this book. I Who Have Never Known Men is a haunting story that tackles the big questions, but provides no answers. Frustrating in parts, epic in scope, this is no action-packed post-apocalyptic dystopia; it is, instead, the treatise of one woman, held in a bunker with thirty-nine older women until “I was forced to acknowledge too late, much too late, that I too had loved, that I was capable of suffering, and that I was human after all.” Wow. I went into this knowing nothing and was blown away by this book. I Who Have Never Known Men is a haunting story that tackles the big questions, but provides no answers. Frustrating in parts, epic in scope, this is no action-packed post-apocalyptic dystopia; it is, instead, the treatise of one woman, held in a bunker with thirty-nine older women until one day, their world changes. Don’t read anything more about it. Go into this blind. And read the new introduction at the end, when you’ve finished (it should really have been published as an afterword). Haunting.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Natalie M

    An esoteric, thought-provoking dystopian read! As soon as I let go of logic and allowed myself to ponder the bigger life questions I found myself thinking about the deeper issues of femininity, humanity, identity and reason. Not for those readers who are plot driven! And despite its novella qualities, I found reading this book intermittently allowed me to enjoy the concepts and notions the author was posing. Really different, really intriguing and I’d still like to know more!

  8. 5 out of 5

    Joseph

    "I was forced to acknowledge too late, much too late, that I too had loved, that I was capable of suffering, and that I was human after all…" Belgian psychoanalyst and author Jacqueline Harpman (1929-2012) wrote over fifteen novels and won several literary prizes. I confess with some shame that I had never heard of her. Perhaps I might be forgiven considering the dearth of English translations of her works. Harpman’s 1995 novel Moi Qui N’ai Pas Connu les Hommes was the first to be translated into "I was forced to acknowledge too late, much too late, that I too had loved, that I was capable of suffering, and that I was human after all…" Belgian psychoanalyst and author Jacqueline Harpman (1929-2012) wrote over fifteen novels and won several literary prizes. I confess with some shame that I had never heard of her. Perhaps I might be forgiven considering the dearth of English translations of her works. Harpman’s 1995 novel Moi Qui N’ai Pas Connu les Hommes was the first to be translated into English (originally with the title Mistress of Silence) and, although I stand to be corrected, I believe that of her other novels, only the Prix Medicis prize-winner "Orlanda" is also available in English. Mistress of Silence has now been reissued by Vintage Books with the title I Who Have Never Known Men, in the translation by Ros Schwartz, a veteran translator from the French who was made a Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres in 2009. The novel’s premise is simple: in an undefined period in the near future, we meet forty women who are kept prisoners in a cage in an underground bunker, guarded by a group of armed men, and supplied with just the basic necessities of modern life – electricity, food, water and medication. Eventually, the women manage to escape, only to find themselves roaming what seems to be an uninhabited, post-apocalyptic alien world. The older women hazily but fondly recall a different “normality”, one in which they went around the daily business of life – working, falling in love, raising families. The unnamed narrator is a teenager who has only known life in the bunker. She has no other recollections and is aware that she will never share the experiences which the other women wax nostalgic about. She tries to learn about the past, only to realise that it will serve her no purpose in this strange environment where she will “never know men”. This new edition of the novel is very clearly meant to capitalise on the current interest in feminist dystopian fiction and it is surely no coincidence that it features a new introduction by Sophie Mackintosh, author of The Water Cure. Female prisoners guarded by men, escaping to form a utopia in which they manage to survive without the opposite sex… it certainly is a plot which invites a feminist reading. Yet, as Mackintosh perceptively notes, the novel “is not necessarily extolling this kind of existence” and might even be suggesting that “this settling is the downfall of the women”. Perhaps it’s fairer to say that rather than seeking to ponder “what it means to be a woman” or, for that matter, “a man”, Harpman is more interested to explore what it is that makes us “human”. The older women have memories of life on Earth to remind them of their humanity – the narrator is, on the other hand, a blank slate, with no preconceived ‘social constructs’ apart from what she has vaguely gleaned from her fellow prisoners. She has to discover anew the meaning of an existence to which there appears to be no mapped-out purpose. This novel raises striking philosophical concepts and provides much food for thought. Depending on the reader’s tastes, this could also be its weakness. In fact, this is, in my view, an example of a “novel as thought experiment”. We are given just enough narrative on which to append philosophical discourse. Interesting as that is, anyone looking for page-turning thrills will likely be disappointed. On my part, I felt short-changed by the lack of cogent explanations behind several basic elements of the plot. I like some ambiguity in a plot, but this novel possibly leaves too much to one’s imagination. Yet, there’s no escaping the effectiveness of the novel’s bleak imagery, and I have this suspicion that it will remain with me for a long time. https://endsoftheword.blogspot.com/20...

  9. 5 out of 5

    Kim Z

    The library categorizes this as sci-fi. The situation puts it in that genre, but the story is much simpler. A woman has grown up imprisoned with a group of other women. She has no memory of a world outside their mysterious bunker. The book is the story of a woman learning to think and live without exposure to what most would consider a normal society. Many reviews say how this book explores "what it means to be human." It does that in a way, but that description makes it sound far more pretentio The library categorizes this as sci-fi. The situation puts it in that genre, but the story is much simpler. A woman has grown up imprisoned with a group of other women. She has no memory of a world outside their mysterious bunker. The book is the story of a woman learning to think and live without exposure to what most would consider a normal society. Many reviews say how this book explores "what it means to be human." It does that in a way, but that description makes it sound far more pretentious than this book is. I look at this more as exploring how we become who we are. It also explores what makes things important. The title and the premise may make this sound like a feminist book. It is not. The superiority, inferiority, or equality of genders is not made an issue. There is only one gender present, so there is only one gender described. I won't say the genders could simply be reversed, but think this book would be meaningful to men as well (as long as they don't get squeamish at the occasional mention of menstruation).

  10. 5 out of 5

    Sarah

    I'm really glad this 1995 dystopian novel is being republished, otherwise it would have totally passed me by. The premise is simple: the novel opens with 39 women (and one young girl) imprisoned in a bunker, controlled by three male guards. But then something happens to change all this, and the women have to figure out how to survive on their own. Eerie and quiet, the novel makes readers reconsider what it means to be alive and free to make decisions about one's own destiny. Recommended for fans I'm really glad this 1995 dystopian novel is being republished, otherwise it would have totally passed me by. The premise is simple: the novel opens with 39 women (and one young girl) imprisoned in a bunker, controlled by three male guards. But then something happens to change all this, and the women have to figure out how to survive on their own. Eerie and quiet, the novel makes readers reconsider what it means to be alive and free to make decisions about one's own destiny. Recommended for fans of dystopian feminist fiction (fittingly a new introduction is written by Sophie Mackintosh, author of The Water Cure). Thank you Netgalley and Random House UK / Vintage Publishing for the advance copy, which was provided in exchange for an honest review.

  11. 5 out of 5

    Dan

    4 stars because I've never shaken it. Probably because I found myself thinking the other day about Oryx and Crake and then realized their "Last Person on Earth" genre similarities made them genial companions. It's a haunting book where women are imprisoned by men for no real reason in a hidden bunker--and then one day, the men leave, the women are freed--but everyone else is dead and gone. It's a slow and dreary wind-down to the conclusion. I wanted to hate it, I should hate it--and yet I don't. In 4 stars because I've never shaken it. Probably because I found myself thinking the other day about Oryx and Crake and then realized their "Last Person on Earth" genre similarities made them genial companions. It's a haunting book where women are imprisoned by men for no real reason in a hidden bunker--and then one day, the men leave, the women are freed--but everyone else is dead and gone. It's a slow and dreary wind-down to the conclusion. I wanted to hate it, I should hate it--and yet I don't. In fact, I'll see if I can locate myself a copy at Amazon and relive the experience again at a later date.

  12. 5 out of 5

    Rod MacLeod

    This is a remarkable book, quite unlike any other. Warning though, don’t read the introduction until you’ve read the book. It’s an odd book to read while we are all in lockdown but perhaps it becomes more meaningful because of that

  13. 4 out of 5

    Anna

    I was forced to acknowledge too late, much too late, that I too had loved, that I was capable of suffering, and that I was human after all… For a book which is little over 200 pages, this was not an easy read for me. I probably wouldn’t recommend it to anyone dealing with loss and grief. I’m all for profoundly sad, haunting, dark books, but there were times when I had to put the book down because I just couldn’t deal with some of the things happening. But I did pull through, being rewarded with a I was forced to acknowledge too late, much too late, that I too had loved, that I was capable of suffering, and that I was human after all… For a book which is little over 200 pages, this was not an easy read for me. I probably wouldn’t recommend it to anyone dealing with loss and grief. I’m all for profoundly sad, haunting, dark books, but there were times when I had to put the book down because I just couldn’t deal with some of the things happening. But I did pull through, being rewarded with a heartbreakingly beautiful work which I will probably never forget! What makes this dystopian genre-defying book stand the test of time is its refusal to offer satisfying answers to any of the questions the unnamed protagonist and readers ask themselves. You are compelled to read and deal with your thoughts and fears of what might have happened.

  14. 4 out of 5

    Roman Clodia

    An enigmatic book, haunting and mysterious but ultimately frustratingly open-ended: if you're the kind of reader who needs to have things tied up and explained by the end then step away now - we have no idea why these women have been incarcerated in a bunker, who their male guards are, why the siren goes off, what has happened to the outside world, even whether they're still on earth... What starts out with a dystopian feel turns into a kind of existentialist meditation as 'the girl', our nameles An enigmatic book, haunting and mysterious but ultimately frustratingly open-ended: if you're the kind of reader who needs to have things tied up and explained by the end then step away now - we have no idea why these women have been incarcerated in a bunker, who their male guards are, why the siren goes off, what has happened to the outside world, even whether they're still on earth... What starts out with a dystopian feel turns into a kind of existentialist meditation as 'the girl', our nameless narrator, ends up as possibly the only woman left alive - without companions or much purpose other than staying alive in her threatless existence, the book asks what is human life? Ultimately more 'Waiting for Godot' than 'The Handmaid's Tale' I found this weirdly compelling. 3.5 stars as I would have liked a bit more material to work with.

  15. 4 out of 5

    Anna

    Is this a dystopia? Science fiction? Literary fiction? 40 women are kept imprisoned in a bunker for unknown reasons for many years. They cannot recall how and why they came to be here. The „child” grew up here, she has no recollection of a life before. She has no recollection of her mother or father. Touching is forbidden, so no one can comfort her. The rules are imposed by guards with whips. The whips don't strike anymore, but they must have once, because even the sound of it always elicits obed Is this a dystopia? Science fiction? Literary fiction? 40 women are kept imprisoned in a bunker for unknown reasons for many years. They cannot recall how and why they came to be here. The „child” grew up here, she has no recollection of a life before. She has no recollection of her mother or father. Touching is forbidden, so no one can comfort her. The rules are imposed by guards with whips. The whips don't strike anymore, but they must have once, because even the sound of it always elicits obedience. ‘You have so little idea what it meant to have a destiny that you can’t understand what it means to be deprived as we are. Look at the way we live: we know we have to behave as if it’s morning, because they make the lights brighter, then they pass us food and, at a given time, the lights are dimmed. We’re not even certain they make us live according to a twenty-four-hour pattern. How would we measure time? They’ve reduced us to utter helplessness.’ Her tone was harsh and she stared straight ahead. Once again, I felt like crying. I curled up into a ball. ‘What’s the matter?’ All of a sudden, her voice was so gentle, so lilting, that I trembled as if being caressed. At least, I suppose it could be described thus: something exquisite coursed through me, so delicious that it frightened me. I curled up even tighter. ‘I don’t want to talk any more,’ I told her. ‘I was happier when I hadn’t understood anything, when I hated you all because you kept your secrets. You don’t have any. You have nothing, and there is nothing to be had.’ When they escape (and I'm not giving much away, it is clear from the first pages that they do – the protagonist, who is never given a name apart from „child” is writing these passages to put her memories on paper) they find themselves in an alien looking landscape. Where are they? Are they on Earth, or another planet? The guards have vanished and they don't encounter any living thing. How will they manage? Can they survive on their own? Were they the only prisoners, or were there others? Did anyone else survive? Will they ever discover why they were imprisoned? Some of these questions remain till the end. Despite the barrenness of the surroundings, the primitive circumstances and the hopelessness of the situation there is often a tone of warmth and humanity in this novel. “I was forced to acknowledge too late, much too late, that I too had loved, that I was capable of suffering, and that I was human after all.” I wonder if anyone out there who has read this knows the significance of the number 40. (view spoiler)[Why were there always 40 prisoners in a bunker? (hide spoiler)] This is the second book within a year that I have read which has been translated from French and has become a favourite. The other one was And the Birds Rained Down by Jocelyne Saucier.

  16. 5 out of 5

    श्रेया (Shreya)

    Now wait a minute-how had I not heard of this book before? How is this not as popular as 1984 or The Handmaid’s Tale? Goodness this is some book. I have so many questions. I will admit that I like having the mechanisms of a dystopian or fantasy world explained to me in great detail (a good example of an author that does this wonderfully well is J.K. Rowling) because then I get to exercise my brain to connect dots, try and solve whatever mysteries there are to solve, etc. and it's just generally e Now wait a minute-how had I not heard of this book before? How is this not as popular as 1984 or The Handmaid’s Tale? Goodness this is some book. I have so many questions. I will admit that I like having the mechanisms of a dystopian or fantasy world explained to me in great detail (a good example of an author that does this wonderfully well is J.K. Rowling) because then I get to exercise my brain to connect dots, try and solve whatever mysteries there are to solve, etc. and it's just generally easier to immerse myself wholly in the new, established reality. So not getting ANY explanations can detract from the overall experience of a story. Yet having nothing explained added greatly to the story here- not knowing made everything so much more terrifying. I feel like my senses were heightened more than usual while reading this (I wanted so desperately to figure out the whys and the hows) that I had to give the story all my attention if I wanted to pick up any traces of an explanation. In this, I was reminded of my reading experiences with Kafka (especially The Trial) and Kundera- the absurdity of the entire situation here was so very disturbing and appalling to me, which makes it so much more horrifying to imagine. In my experience of reading Dystopia I find that clusters of books deeply resemble each other- like how 1984, The Handmaid's Tale were so similar (although in that case I loved figuring out how Atwood manipulated ideas from Orwell) or Huxley and Bradbury writing in similar styles, and The Divergent Series basically ripping off The Hunger Games books- they all try to be different but in my opinion are so similar. So the great mix of Absurdity, Philosophy and Dystopia was something I appreciated a lot here- many general expectations I had had going into this were broken and that's very cool. I will be thinking about this one for a long long time.

  17. 5 out of 5

    Hayley

    Amazed at this book

  18. 4 out of 5

    Susan

    This is a thought-provoking read. It was listed under the post-apocalypse-futuristic-dystopia genre, but in my mind, it's much more of a psychological-sociological thriller. (That won't make it sound appealing to many, since I may be one of a very small group who would consider sociology to be thrilling. But for that very small group--this is a gem!) A group of women and one child are kept locked up in an underground cave following an unspecified apocalypse. The unnamed child is the only one who This is a thought-provoking read. It was listed under the post-apocalypse-futuristic-dystopia genre, but in my mind, it's much more of a psychological-sociological thriller. (That won't make it sound appealing to many, since I may be one of a very small group who would consider sociology to be thrilling. But for that very small group--this is a gem!) A group of women and one child are kept locked up in an underground cave following an unspecified apocalypse. The unnamed child is the only one who remembers nothing of the "outside world," having been there almost her whole life. She has no family. The other women are not allowed to touch her and barely speak to her. She thus grows up left very much to herself to figure out various aspects of life. Note: This is not science fiction. There is no cathartic moment when the details of the disaster fall into place. If you're looking for that, you will be sorely disappointed. Although it felt somewhat unsatisfying in that aspect, it was more than thorough in its philosophical exploration of human consciousness--both collective and individual. It sticks with you after you've finished.

  19. 5 out of 5

    S̶e̶a̶n̶

    I’m feeling ambivalence over this one. On the one hand, it raises a lot of intriguing points to ponder around existence, fellowship, daily life, memory, and much else. On the other hand, the writing style didn’t fully engage me (standard disclaimer applies regarding unknown translation quality) and I also found the narrator a bit dull. To be fair, her dullness is really not her fault; she is a victim of her extreme and unusual circumstances. Coincidentally I started reading this while in the mid I’m feeling ambivalence over this one. On the one hand, it raises a lot of intriguing points to ponder around existence, fellowship, daily life, memory, and much else. On the other hand, the writing style didn’t fully engage me (standard disclaimer applies regarding unknown translation quality) and I also found the narrator a bit dull. To be fair, her dullness is really not her fault; she is a victim of her extreme and unusual circumstances. Coincidentally I started reading this while in the midst of watching the recent series adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (published a decade earlier than this book). There is definitely crossover in premise and theme with Atwood’s story, particularly in the first section of Hartman’s novel. Even more so, though, it shares a lot of common ground with Marlen Haushofer’s The Wall (notwithstanding one major difference (view spoiler)[The narrator in The Wall is alone throughout, while Hartman’s narrator lives in the company of a large group of women (hide spoiler)] ). I found the first section of the book to be somewhat tedious, although in retrospect it was useful in establishing a baseline to contrast with what is to come. (It’s a little difficult to write in specifics about the book without revealing the few crucial plot points.) At first I thought it might be primarily an examination of subjugation of women, and it is to a degree, but later revelations temper that theme. The book grows into more of an exploration of the themes I noted earlier: existence, identity, relationships, quotidian life, loss, self-discovery, memory, etc. The narrator exists as a kind of cipher, born of a stultified life of deprivation. She is missing so much context yet craves any kind of stimulation. Juxtaposing her with the women around her who previously led ‘normal’ lives results in a seemingly endless series of insights into the experience of both being human and being a woman. The genres of post-apocalyptic and dystopian fiction are so clogged with tropes that it’s virtually impossible for a writer to avoid using any of them. While there are tropes in Harpman’s novel, to me she is only using them as tools to stimulate reflection, both inward and outward. These genre conventions end up as mere window dressing for what is a work that never ceases to generate questions about who we are and why we exist. (3.5)

  20. 5 out of 5

    Jimmy

    Strange premise (I won't go into the details here, since EVERY review of this book summarizes the plot, I don't feel like I need to). The premise only spurs more and more questions without resolving them. I am not unsatisfied with the unsolved questions, as those unsolved questions are the whole point of the novel. It's nice for the brain to keep moving, just as the protagonist does in this story, walking from cabin to cabin, alone and thinking out the mysteries. It's a book where the questions Strange premise (I won't go into the details here, since EVERY review of this book summarizes the plot, I don't feel like I need to). The premise only spurs more and more questions without resolving them. I am not unsatisfied with the unsolved questions, as those unsolved questions are the whole point of the novel. It's nice for the brain to keep moving, just as the protagonist does in this story, walking from cabin to cabin, alone and thinking out the mysteries. It's a book where the questions are supposed to stay with you long after you read it, to haunt you. Also, makes me think: how are our lives different from hers? Yes we have a bunch of luxuries, and cities, and many more THINGS. But ultimately what do we have? We have each other. But some of us still die alone. We have our knowledge… we have known men. We have known life, we've “lived” so to speak. But that just goes to highlight how much we haven't lived, how much we still don't and can't know. If everything is relative, what does it mean to be a human with no other humans to be "in relation to." You pretty much don't exist. I loved imagining myself in her predicament, it didn't fill me with dread but an odd excitement. Maybe I'm just weird, since everyone on here is talking about how bleak it is. And I acknowledge that it is that too, but also exciting... I imagine the mysteries of my life being maybe in the next bunker or over the next hill. What strange things will I find there and what will it reveal about the true meaning of my life? It's like one of those really open ended video games where you just go exploring and exploring. Despite the name, it's not really a “feminist” book, although it is written from a decidedly feminine position, a female character going through female specific things (if it were a group of males stranded in the unknown landscape, how would that dynamic have been different?) Reminded me of Wittgenstein's Mistress, We Who Are About To..., and The Handmaid's Tale

  21. 5 out of 5

    Stephanie Jane

    See more of my book reviews on my blog, Literary Flits I Who Have Never Known Men is a disturbingly haunting story. A woman recounts her life to us although, from her earliest memories until the time she finds pen, paper and the inclination to write, she has no idea where she is or why she is there. As readers, we have no idea either. We are told of her immediate surroundings - of the cage and the other women locked inside it - in detail. We learn of the deprivations of their daily lives and of t See more of my book reviews on my blog, Literary Flits I Who Have Never Known Men is a disturbingly haunting story. A woman recounts her life to us although, from her earliest memories until the time she finds pen, paper and the inclination to write, she has no idea where she is or why she is there. As readers, we have no idea either. We are told of her immediate surroundings - of the cage and the other women locked inside it - in detail. We learn of the deprivations of their daily lives and of the silent guards forever pacing up and down. We know that the women originally lived in a society like ours because they remember it, but where the girl came from, nobody knows. Are they all caged for their own protection or as a punishment? Is there anyone else? Anywhere? Harpman's writing is perfect for this novel. Her skill in being able to tell an utterly compelling story while leaving out practically all the background information is genius! In the hands of a lesser author I would no doubt be bemoaning gaping plot holes or inconsistent information, but here our narrator's questioning of her circumstances exactly reflected my questioning and drew me towards her rather than pushing me away. At several points I paused to put myself into her position. How would I react? I Who Have Never Known Men is all about our inner lives as women, how we find a purpose for ourselves and what we can achieve when we need to. I would not have been surprised if this novel had been written immediately post-war. I felt it had that sense about it - of escaping extreme trauma, of realising that survival isn't the end, it isn't enough. The dystopian emptiness of this land is terrifying, especially as the women become fewer in number, and its portrayal is also extremely timely. The current rate of species extinction on Earth means Harpman's imagined desolation might not be so far away after all.

  22. 4 out of 5

    Ian

    Powerful, mysterious, gripping, absorbing and simply 'thought-provokingly' fascinating - in short, just brilliant! The Plot - The incarceration and subsequent journey of a group of 40 women who escape from a caged underground bunker then travel and explore their newly revealed above ground reality in the hope of discovering some sense of order and meaning to both their previous experiences and to life on 'Earth(?)' itself. This proved to be an excellent, seriously written philosophical piece of 'f Powerful, mysterious, gripping, absorbing and simply 'thought-provokingly' fascinating - in short, just brilliant! The Plot - The incarceration and subsequent journey of a group of 40 women who escape from a caged underground bunker then travel and explore their newly revealed above ground reality in the hope of discovering some sense of order and meaning to both their previous experiences and to life on 'Earth(?)' itself. This proved to be an excellent, seriously written philosophical piece of 'female - based' science fiction which is just crammed packed full of symbolism and hidden meaning. Although desperately sad, bleak, dour and despairingly desolate from the outset, it also includes signs of hope (light and food) and shows how a person can manage to conduct themselves with dignity, compassion and understanding whatever set of circumstances they find themselves in. Conclusions - meaning and drawn inferences? This story contains lots of truly wonderful thought-provoking ideas for the individual reader to ponder on completion but I think it is notable that the writer was Jewish and she and her family luckily escaped from life under the Nazi regime during WW2. I found that this went a long way to help explain many of her profound and meaningful intentions found within 'Never Known Men'. Yes, a thoroughly enjoyable read and one which I would highly recommend. Rating: 4.7 stars.

  23. 4 out of 5

    Laura Teague

    I read the edition with the alternative title 'Mistress of Silence' which I think sounds a lot better than the other one. It's a strange story set maybe in the future or on another planet about a young girl who suddenly becomes aware of her surroundings. She (she's never given a name)lives in an underground bunker with a group of women, who are all much older than her. The women have memories of their former lives but no understanding of how they came to be in the bunker. They live a very basic li I read the edition with the alternative title 'Mistress of Silence' which I think sounds a lot better than the other one. It's a strange story set maybe in the future or on another planet about a young girl who suddenly becomes aware of her surroundings. She (she's never given a name)lives in an underground bunker with a group of women, who are all much older than her. The women have memories of their former lives but no understanding of how they came to be in the bunker. They live a very basic life and are kept in order by male guards who never actually interact with the women. One day, the women are woken by a siren and the guards have fled. The women manage to escape the bunker and go in search of some form of civilization (and perhaps, their former lives). One of the most unique books I've ever read - it stayed with me for days. It has a strange dreamlike quality about it and is simply but beautifully written.

  24. 5 out of 5

    Bart Van Overmeire

    Ducks, what a book!

  25. 5 out of 5

    Miina Saarna

    A fantastic book! I have so many questions and I will never know the answers but that’s completely fine. Such a cool story.

  26. 5 out of 5

    Callum McLaughlin

    From the quality of the prose, to the big, philosophical questions it poses, this understated dystopian novel from Belgian author Jacqueline Harpman feels destined to become a modern classic. Its concept is instantly enthralling: a group of 40 women who have spent years being held prisoner in an underground bunker with no knowledge as to why finally escape on a stroke of luck, and must attempt to survive in the sparse, deserted world they find above. Harpman confronts the reader with some fascina From the quality of the prose, to the big, philosophical questions it poses, this understated dystopian novel from Belgian author Jacqueline Harpman feels destined to become a modern classic. Its concept is instantly enthralling: a group of 40 women who have spent years being held prisoner in an underground bunker with no knowledge as to why finally escape on a stroke of luck, and must attempt to survive in the sparse, deserted world they find above. Harpman confronts the reader with some fascinating ideas, from the value of knowledge in a world that no longer requires it, to the qualities of humanity that should endure in the absence of society. Wandering a largely barren landscape, the few tableaus her characters do encounter are made all the more vivid and haunting. The constant search for answers (who are these women? Why were they kept prisoner? Who were their captors? What happened to the rest of humanity?) are so compelling that I found myself powering through the book. I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say we never gain any of this context, however. It certainly ties into the theme of how much importance and meaning we place on having knowledge and understanding of the world around us, but it also results in a lack of closure that is sure to alienate some readers. The biggest stumbling block in submitting myself to the book’s singular world for me was not a lack of answers, however, but a number of holes in both plot and logic. The women (particularly our narrator, who was so young when she was taken prisoner that she has no recollection of the outside world) adapt far too quickly to their newfound freedom. There’s no sense of them being blinded by the sunlight or daunted by the vast, open plains that await them above ground when they’ve only known a single, windowless room for more than a decade. I’ll leave out specifics to avoid spoiling what little plot there is, but suffice to say they also seem to be equipped with a range of skills that is frankly baffling given their background. And whilst it’s interesting to read from the perspective of a heroine who is intelligent, eloquent, resourceful, rebellious, and snarky, none of these qualities feel believable in a teenage girl who has never known affection or education; whose physical and cognitive development would have been severely impeded by her captive upbringing. Her ability to be writing the account of her life at all (which is how the novel is presented) feels like a huge stretch, especially given how good Harpman’s prose is. A big pet peeve of mine is when smaller plot holes – like how buildings continue to be powered by electricity for decades despite no sign of any power source – are acknowledged briefly by the characters but never actually addressed. It feels like a lazy way of avoiding a problem the author simply doesn’t want to deal with. While I have no issue whatsoever with a writer holding back information to enhance a book’s narrative or themes in some way, I don’t like when it comes across as though they themselves simply didn’t have the answers. Despite having several complaints, and this review likely coming across negatively as a result, this was still a very worthwhile and stimulating read; my frustrations stemming from how much I wanted to adore it based on its enormous potential. For those who are better able to suspend their disbelief, or who don’t mind plot and character being used as thin veils for an author to ruminate on interesting themes, this is well worth checking out. Taking a much quieter, more contemplative approach to dystopian fiction, it stands unique amidst a crowded genre, and I’m certain it’s one that will keep me thinking for a while.

  27. 4 out of 5

    Zola

    I wish I could have read this in its original language. Translated from the French, "I Who Have Never Known Men" is like the sound of a broken bell. It is jarring, disquieting, and profoundly saddening. The story carries you along through the mind of a female creature, I would hardly put her down as human, and yet it is a story about the loss of one's humanity. I would love to research the origins of this book, and Jacqueline Harpman's personal history. I wish I could have read this in its original language. Translated from the French, "I Who Have Never Known Men" is like the sound of a broken bell. It is jarring, disquieting, and profoundly saddening. The story carries you along through the mind of a female creature, I would hardly put her down as human, and yet it is a story about the loss of one's humanity. I would love to research the origins of this book, and Jacqueline Harpman's personal history.

  28. 5 out of 5

    LindaJ^

    I forget where I read about this book and why I bought it. It is a translation from French. The book was first published in France in 1995 and translated in 1997 by small press Seven Stories Press. The author has won many literary awards in France. It is a keeper. Even though the only living characters in this book are women, this book is universal. There has been an apocalypse. The main character and narrator of this book is a woman on the edge of death and alone on a world (could be earth but m I forget where I read about this book and why I bought it. It is a translation from French. The book was first published in France in 1995 and translated in 1997 by small press Seven Stories Press. The author has won many literary awards in France. It is a keeper. Even though the only living characters in this book are women, this book is universal. There has been an apocalypse. The main character and narrator of this book is a woman on the edge of death and alone on a world (could be earth but maybe not) with a tropical climate, some rivers, and some trees and underground cells where groups of 40 women or men were imprisoned for at least a decade before the alarm sounded and the guards vanished. The surviving woman is writing her story. She was imprisoned when a toddler. The other women in her cell assumed it was a mistake that she was put with them. They called her "child." She had no name. She has no memories of life before the cell. She starts writing her story from about the time she was 15 and acting like a teenager -- angry at the other women for perceived slights. The event occurs soon after -- the alarm sounds just as the guards are unlocking the cell to push in the days food. The guards take off, leaving the keys in the lock. The women leave the cell and climb a staircase to the surface, where there is no sign of the guards or anyone else. You can say the women are free but actually their prison has just been enlarged. The "child" outlives them all by over 20 years. She demands they teach her to read and to do basic math, even if she may never have use for it. She is smart, inquisitive, and hungry for knowledge. She is a survivor and her story is monumental.

  29. 4 out of 5

    Εva

    Following the renaissance and the positive reception of dystopian literature, Harpman's novel was republished this year. Having read quite a few representative books of the genre, I have to say that what differentiates this particular one is the in-depth analysis of the heroine's feelings and motives, since her experience is narrated in first person. We are witnessing the aftermath of a post-apocalyptic status quo in a young girl. At the centre of her story is her sexual unawareness, stemmed fro Following the renaissance and the positive reception of dystopian literature, Harpman's novel was republished this year. Having read quite a few representative books of the genre, I have to say that what differentiates this particular one is the in-depth analysis of the heroine's feelings and motives, since her experience is narrated in first person. We are witnessing the aftermath of a post-apocalyptic status quo in a young girl. At the centre of her story is her sexual unawareness, stemmed from the fact that, as far as she can remember herself, she has only lived with other women, trapped in a bunker, among many. The only men she has encountered are their guards. We never really get to know what brought them in this situation, but this hardly matters. It is a dark and thoroughly pessimistic story, with occasional rays of light,but it is definitely worth the attention of good books fans.

  30. 5 out of 5

    Sahil Kewl

    A good read after a while whose every page will keep you excited about what happen next. What i didn't like is the ending. It was very abrupt and sad. I hope there will be a sequel that will make the ending not so unfortunate for the protagonist in the novel Very touching novel as well if you think about the position of women in our patriarchal society. Also, it teaches that no knowledge gained is ever wasted. One can never know when will you get to use the knowledge that you had learned for no re A good read after a while whose every page will keep you excited about what happen next. What i didn't like is the ending. It was very abrupt and sad. I hope there will be a sequel that will make the ending not so unfortunate for the protagonist in the novel Very touching novel as well if you think about the position of women in our patriarchal society. Also, it teaches that no knowledge gained is ever wasted. One can never know when will you get to use the knowledge that you had learned for no reason. So, learn n read while you have the opportunity and feel accomplished later in life ahead. (:

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