Book Review: The Descent of Man

It took me a very long time to read The Descent of Man, by Grayson Perry. I started it at the end of March and finished it at the beginning of June. That’s a ridiculously long time for me. That doesn’t mean it’s a bad book. It’s actually a very good book, but the combination of being non-fiction (which I don’t read a lot of) and on my kindle made it something of a struggle. I’m glad I got the chance to read it though, thanks to Netgalley and the publishers.

the descent of man

Grayson Perry has been thinking about masculinity – what it is, how it operates, why little boys are thought to be made of slugs and snails – since he was a boy. Now, in this funny and necessary book, he turns round to look at men with a clear eye and ask, what sort of men would make the world a better place, for everyone?

What would happen if we rethought the old, macho, outdated version of manhood, and embraced a different idea of what makes a man? Apart from giving up the coronary-inducing stress of always being ‘right’ and the vast new wardrobe options, the real benefit might be that a newly fitted masculinity will allow men to have better relationships – and that’s happiness, right?

Grayson Perry admits he’s not immune from the stereotypes himself – as the psychoanalysts say, ‘if you spot it, you’ve got it’ – and his thoughts on everything from power to physical appearance, from emotions to a brand new Manifesto for Men, are shot through with honesty, tenderness and the belief that, for everyone to benefit, upgrading masculinity has to be something men decide to do themselves. They have nothing to lose but their hang-ups.

I found The Descent of Man to be a thoughtful exploration of masculinity and feminism, but thought it lost its way a little towards the end. Perry certainly has some interesting ideas, and I loved the artwork poking fun at some of the more obvious problems with the way masculinity is often seen as the only way to be a proper man, but he doesn’t really take those ideas to their full conclusions. And while this is a criticism, I make it in the full knowledge that I would definitely not have been able to do any better!

The parts I really enjoyed were Perry’s anecdotes, whether from his own upbringing, forcing him to look at his own prejudices and points of view, or from people he met while filming the TV programme on similar themes. He’s an excellent writer, able to paint a vivid picture with a few words, and I definitely plan to read his other work.

This is quite a short review, mostly because it took me so long to read the book I’ve forgotten most of the thoughts I was having back at the beginning. I’d recommend it, with the disclaimer that it might not fully live up to your expectations.

3.5/5

ARC received from the publisher via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.

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