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I had to study this play as part of an Open University course I did a while back now, but decided to review it because I realised that (as it’s much more pleasant!) I’ve been tending to only review books that I have loved, or have moved me in some way. And Top Girls certainly didn’t do any of that, so I thought I’d prove that I am capable of reviewing literature that I’m not fond of!

I can see what Top Girls is driving at. It takes a succesful woman, Marlene, and shows the compromises that she has had to make to get to the top. It questions whether women really have to act like men to be successful, or whether this is only a path to unhappiness and cynicism, and explores this through the eyes of women, and particularly Marlene, in the ’80s. Churchill views the typical linear play structure, like the modern working world, as a male creation and challenges it through reworking it, with the acts in a non-linear sequence and in the dinner-table scene (where Marlene asks ‘active’ women of history to dinner to celebrate her promotion) the characters talk over each other, using each other’s narratives as a launching point. The play starts with this dinner table scene, and then later shows the price that Marlene has paid for this career.

Whilst I understand that this play was groundbreaking in its time, I’m afraid that I find it all a bit heavy-handed. The parallels with Thatcher are so obviously, and the strident ‘superwoman’ of the ’80s so overplayed, that I found it all a bit much. I am a feminist to my bones, and I do realise that many of the issues that Churchill raises are still problems, often intractable, for women today. But somehow I also feel that women have started at least to realise their own self-worth and realise that, although their style may be different from the ‘boys’ ,they still have something worthwhile to bring to the table. So I think I feel that this play has just had its day, and that it hasn’t aged well.  But I also found it profoundly depressing, even, maybe especially, in the dinner scene. And I don’t mind depressing art if it has a lesson to teach me, but I’m not sure Top Girls has any more.

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If, like a character in one of the stories, you are a ‘collector of treasures’ then this is one to keep. Having read many of Alexander McCall Smith’s books, and enjoyed them, I now presume that his deceptively simple and engaging writing style owes more than a nod to Bessie Head given their shared Botswanan past.

Through a collection of carefully crafted short stories Head explores the position of women in a society that, she feels, has never valued women, but now (in 1977 when the book was published) puts them in a particularly difficult position in a new, post-independence ‘modern’ Botswana where traditional values were being eroded. She seems concerned that for most people, especially men, nothing else had taken their place.

She doesn’t paint a pretty picture of women’s position or the dilemmas they face in village life, and yet these stories are not on the whole sad. Instead, crafted in the style of oral tradition, they offer us a vision of humanity, how even though some relationships may destroy us, carefully chosen, treasured and valued ones can carry us through. It says, simply, that life is hard for everyone, but mostly we have choices, and if we chose well and chose who to rely on well, sometimes it will be less hard. But for women it will be harder and sometimes they will not be able to choose, but if this is the case then everyone will lose to some extent.

For such short stories they certainly make you think, and the title story especially is a ‘treasure’ to be taken out and pondered over on dark nights. Would I do the same? Could I do the same? Is her lack of choice real because of her society or her illusion – but if the later comes from her up-bringing in that society then is it just as real to her? And perhaps most importantly, what can we do to give women all over the world choices?

It’s rare that such a short book, and such short stories make me pause and think quite as much. Throughly recommended.