Trigger warning: rape.
Touted as a feminist thriller for the #metoo era, Whisper Network by Chandler Baker is an unflinching portrayal of sexual abuse in the workplace. Featuring a narrative that alternates between its four main female characters, the novel also offers the occasional insert from an unnamed omniscient narrator that purposely works as a collective Greek chorus that says: listen to us. See us.
The CEO of sportswear company Truviv is dead and Ames, the man tapped to replace him, seems to be universally loved and admired. Except for the four women who know better. Sloane, Ardie, Grace and Rosalita have worked at Truviv for many years and they all have secrets – to one extent or another, they have experienced life under Ames’ attentions. It’s Sloane that sets it all off when she sees Ames’ attention veering toward new employee Catherine. Sloane knows what is going on, she can see the signs. And enough is enough. Ames cannot possibly be their new CEO. It is just not right. Together the women devise a plan. But a catastrophic turn of events changes everything.
That last bit is where the thriller side of the novel comes in, which I shall leave unspoiled. Instead, I will concentrate on the other aspects of the novel, the women’s voices and their stories.
Sloane is the one who had an affair with Ames years ago and is still suffering the consequences with the micro-aggressions and with being passed over for promotion over and over again. Still, just like with her friends Ardie and Grace, they are just successful enough within the company, Ames is personably enough andthe whispers, the whispers are just not loud enough.
And we know about the whispers. The whispers, the conversations women have in the backstage, the advice, the “bewares”. In this book, there is even an excel spreadsheet passed around the women in Dallas – The BAD Men List, aka “Beware of Asshole Dallas Men”. Ames is not on the list to start with, although women know about him.
Ardie, who had started at Truviv first was not fast enough in counselling Sloane when she started. And that’s the problem with the whispering: the network is flawed. It’s not far-reaching if you are on the outside looking in. Rosalita, one of the cleaning ladies at Truviv knows this really, really well. Grace on the other hand, has not seen Ames do anything untoward, she barely believes her friends when they tell her their truths. Surely they are overreacting.
However much these women’s live navigate around Ames’ though, the novel takes great care in showing their lives outside of work too. Inner lives of women and all that, in all their complex, complicated glories. Grace just had a baby and is finding it hard to bond with the baby – it’s possible she is experiencing post-natal depression and the expectations placed on her as a mother and as a professional are also very familiar to the reader.
In one of the most impacting scenes for me, Sloane is called to her daughter’s school after a fight. Her daughter punched a boy and is being told off. The circumstances then become clear: the boy had been bullying her about her underwear and in what effectively is a case of sexual harassment at school, with the principal enabling and dismissing the boy’s actions (boys will be boys) and allocating the burden of compromise and guilt to the victim, the girl. Sloane rightfully loses her shit then, and the novel once again correctly unveils the intricate ways that rape culture exist in all strata of our society, starting from really early.
There is a stark contrast between the mostly white women’s experiences and that of Rosalita’s though. “Mostly” because Ardie is also Latina but her background is not as explored as that of Rosalita however it was interesting to see the contrast between a successful Latina woman and an underprivileged one.
It’s interesting (and freaking awesome) that it was in Rosalita’s invisibility that the women’s found their collective success and I found that refreshing, because if Rosalita was invisible to most of them most of the time and completely invisible to men all the time, she wasn’t invisible to herself or to the readers. Her voice was strong, her actions resolute– and she saw all the characters for whom they were. In a book that is also about privilege, Rosalita saw everything.
In spite of both Rosalita’s strong characterisation and of its attempted collectiveness, the novel’s biggest shortcoming is that it is not a novel about all of us: the women featured here are mostly white, all cis and het. Their experiences, as harrowing and recognisable as they are, are not really universal.
But this is after all, still a thriller, complete with a last-minute twist and everything. To that effect, I questioned myself whether empowering women through the trappings of a #metoo thriller is ever a good idea?
I don’t really have an answer for that apart from: how many thrillers have we read where women get killed without even a small nod toward the patriarchal, misogynistic society that often makes their death possible in the first place?
For better or worse, it feels like the tables are finally turned in this over-the-top, confrontational and cathartic thriller.
Rating: 7 – Very Good