While reading Love, the greeting “under his eye” from Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale echoed in my mind. Throughout the television series, handmaids repeat “under his eye” in ways both pious and creepy; “under his eye” operates as both an affirmation of religious devotion, as in under the eye of God and as a reminder of living under the eyes of men and their own craven desires. In spare and haunting prose, Maayan Eitan’s debut novel explores the same phenomenon of women living under the eyes of patriarchy.
Love is about a young woman named Libby. Through vignettes, scraps of dialogue, and picaresque impressions, Love takes readers inside the mind of a young call girl working in a nameless Israeli city. Like Atwood’s handmaids, Libby works and lives under the male gaze, or as Libby describes it plainly, even banally, “men look at me.” Shuttled from appointment to appointment by drivers and sometimes with other working young women, Libby narrates sex work as both ordinary and appallingm punctuated by drug use, menstruation, and loneliness.
The story and the prose alternate between being bleak, horrifying, and riveting. Eitan controls the story and the diction so tightly that the novel feels like it might explode. The prose is spare but potent, and each sentence often layers meaning on the next. Consider the opening six sentences: “You had a terrific laugh. You had long legs, big tits, a flat belly. No, you were fat. You came from ruined homes, well-off families, your parents were madly in love with each other. Your father was an accountant, a kibbutz member, homeless, a linguistics professor at a university.” The second-person address implicates the reader immediately in the story. Thin or fat, from every type of family, this story is about all women as told by one. With taut prose and a small size, Love might be called more accurately a novella, or even a novelette, but a gendered diminution given the weight of the issues and the centrality of this young woman’s voice is best resisted.
Love is divided into two parts: first, “Words Are Whores,” and second, “Love,” mirroring Libby’s experiences divided into two parts — call girl and lover. Eitan constructs the novel as a perfect fulcrum for these two female archetypes. Madonna and whore, wife and mistress, lover and call girl, all living under his eye and collapsing together under pressure.
Love is, in the end, reminiscent of not only Atwood’s 1980s dystopia but also of the intense debates and engagements of those same decades about sex work, prostitution, and pornography. In women’s studies circles, recent interest in these sex debates is insurgent. Scholar Lorna Bracewell’s work traces a different narrative of these earlier contestations, one that does not caricature the various feminist actors, and that helps highlight some of the renewed interest in these questions in the era of #MeToo and Trump as does the recent, highly-popular book by Amia Srinivasan The Right to Sex. With literary chops reminiscent of Andrea Dworkin’s first novel Ice and Fire but with a voice all her own, Eitan enters this territory anew not through philosophy or political history but through story. It is a story worth reading.
Julie R. Enszer is a scholar and poet. She is the author of four collections of poetry: Avowed, Lilith’s Demons, Sisterhood, and Handmade Love, and is the editor of The Complete Works of Pat Parker and Milk & Honey: A Celebration of Jewish Lesbian Poetry.