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Posts Tagged ‘Margaret Atwood’

stone mattress

I love short stories, but I hadn’t read any Margaret Atwood short stories since I read Bluebeard’s Egg at least twenty-five years ago. I also hadn’t realised that there were a few collections out there that I could have been reading. At the same time that I bought this collection, I bought Margaret Atwood’s most recent novel Hag-seed – and was really debating which to read first. I am so glad I chose this collection because it so completely captivated me – and made me realise I really haven’t read enough Atwood the last few years. My re-read of The Handmaid’s Tale  a few months ago was immensely positive of course – but something about The Heart Goes Last didn’t completely work for me (I’m sure it’s just me) – so to be so blown away by another Atwood book felt quite exciting.

Stone Mattress nine wicked tales is highly addictive, sharply observed and brilliantly imagined, I gobbled them up in two days. These are the sort of stories I don’t want to say too much about – you will all just have to read them.

The first three stories; Alphinland, Revenant and Dark Lady are connected, Atwood considers matters of ageing in the stories of a group of people who first knew each other back in the 1960s.

“The freezing rain sifts down, handfuls of shining rice thrown by some unseen celebrant. Wherever it hits, it crystallizes into a granulated coating of ice. In the streetlights it looks so beautiful, like fairy silver, thinks Constance. But then, she would think that; she’s far too prone to enchantment.”

We begin with Constance, in Alphinland – a renowned fantasy writer – who created the fictional world of Alphinland many, many years earlier while she lived with Gavin an aspiring, serious poet. Now she is an old woman, mourning her husband in the midst of an ice storm, trying to look after herself the best she can, she still talks to her husband Ewan, it keeps him close. Constance makes a hazardous journey to the nearby shop, scatters cat litter on the steps outside – all the time remembering Gavin, who cheated on her with Marjorie, and laughed at her work. Constance was probably my favourite character in the whole book.

In Revenant we meet Gavin, a pretentious, revered poet, now living with his third wife Reynold, thirty years his junior. He remembers Constance as the one that got away, about who he wrote some of his best-known poems. Gavin; pretending great nonchalance – thrives on a bit of attention, so is ready to really enjoy himself when a student turns up to interview him.

“Why couldn’t the two of them have gone on and on forever? Himself and Constance, sun and moon, each one of them shining, though in different ways. Instead of which he’s here, forsaken by her, abandoned. In time, which fails to sustain him. In space, which fails to cradle him.”

In Dark Lady, Constance, Marjorie and Reynolds are reunited at Gavin’s funeral. There are of course truths to be told, and memories of the past re-examined. Atwood’s depiction of the funeral, with its folk singers and poetry is pure gold.

The stories in this collection vary in length, but they have a delicate, dark heart. Lusus Naturae is the shortest, a modern take on the vampire stories of the past, innocence and superstition and misunderstanding clash, leading to an inevitable conclusion.

“Now I was dead, I was freer. No one but my mother wa allowed into my room, my former room as they called it. They told the neighbours they were keepimg it as a shrine to my memory. They hung a picture of me on the door, a picture made when I still looked human. I didn’t know what I looked like now, I avoided mirrors.”

The Freeze-dried groom, is darkly humorous – and if you ever watch that TV programme from the US; Storage Wars (I can’t say I have ever understood the appeal)– you will never look at those storage units in the same light. A man who the reader has reason to distrust for other reasons, buys several container units – and is quite unprepared for what he finds inside.

I dream of Zenia with the bright red teeth reintroduces us to Charis, Ros and Tony from The Robber Bride – a book I know I enjoyed very much, but I’m embarrassed to admit I can remember nothing about – though it is a while since I read it.

We meet another writer in The dead hand loves you, a man who years earlier, as a young, penniless student, wrote a horror story which became a huge bestseller – now considered a gothic classic. However, the writer entered into a profit sharing deal at the time with his three housemates, a deal he has had cause to regret for years.

The title story of the collection; Stone mattress was one of my favourites, it concerns an act of terrible (but rather perfect) revenge, when a woman meets the man who raped in in high school – on an arctic cruise.

The premise of Torching the dusties is rather disturbing – nursing homes find themselves under siege as society outside starts to break down. An elderly couple, one a woman with Charles Bonnet syndrome, come together to do all they can to survive.

Throughout this collection Margaret Atwood’s writing is simply wonderful, gorgeous description, dark humour and complex characters explored with feeling.

A few days after finishing this amazing collection of short stories, the BBC broadcast a wonderful programme in which Alan Yentob talks to Margaret Atwood – it was an extraordinarily lovely programme which I have recorded to keep and watch again. It certainly made me want to read the books of Margaret Atwood that I haven’t managed to get around to (perhaps not the Maddaddam trilogy as I am not great with Sci-fi – those who know better tell me if I am wrong), and re-read all those I read twenty five/thirty years ago. I still have Hag-Seed to read and have now ordered Wilderness Tips.

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I feel as if this is a book everyone has read – that in itself makes me nervous – reviewing a book that is so loved, so iconic and so well-known. I feel as if I don’t need to write a long re-hash of the plot – though in the unlikely event that there is someone who hasn’t read this book I will attempt to give a spoiler free taste of it.

“But who can remember pain, once it’s over? All that remains of it is a shadow, not in the mind even, in the flesh. Pain marks you, but too deep to see. Out of sight, out of mind.”

I first read The Handmaid’s Tale somewhere between 1987 and the early 1990s. My Virago edition dates from 1987, and I feel like I have always had this book in my possession – and hard though it might be to believe, I didn’t have an absurd tbr back then, so it stands to reason I would have read it around the time I bought it. I had wanted to re-read it for a while, so when my very small book group chose to read it, I was delighted. Certain books stay with us– on some level at least, no matter how many books come after. When I read The Handmaid’s Tale all those years ago I was quite young, and the story horrified and haunted me – I loved the novel and was devastated by it at the same time. Dystopian fiction worried me, I was at an impressionable age during those latter years of Thatcher’s Britain. A few years earlier when I was still at school I had had a similar reaction to George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (I left school in 1984 aged sixteen, I had read the book in the early 80s and convinced myself it would all come true). This time I flew through the novel in two days, breathless with admiration, it really is the most astonishingly brilliant, and deeply affecting novel – and still feels frighteningly relevant.

Margaret Atwood takes us to a terrifying, near future, the former United States, now called Gilead, a war is being fought, disease and pollution has had a drastic effect on fertility. The entire government have been assassinated and replaced by a new social order, a totalitarian theocracy intent on ensuring the continuation of the population. Atwood’s depiction of this society – with its rules and punishments is absolutely breath-taking, it reads as a warning. A strongly feminist novel, The Handmaid’s Tale explores the subjugation of women in an unforgettable way.

“But remember that forgiveness too is a power. To beg for it is a power, and to withhold or bestow it is a power, perhaps the greatest. Maybe none of this is about control. Maybe it isn’t really about who can own whom, who can do what to whom and get away with it, even as far as death. Maybe it isn’t about who can sit and who has to kneel or stand or lie down, legs spread open. Maybe it’s about who can do what to whom and be forgiven for it. Never tell me it amounts to the same thing.”

Offred is our narrator a thirty-three-year-old woman, forced to live as a handmaiden in the home of a high-ranking commander and his wife – her task; – taken from a literal interpretation of the Old Testament – is to breed for them. Offred (literally of-Fred, the commander’s first name is Fred) having found to be fertile, having had a child in the time before – was forcibly taken to the Red Centre, where she was prepared and instructed in the ways of her new life, that of a handmaid. Here she meets Moira – a friend from the time before.

“The moment of betrayal is the worst, the moment when you know beyond any doubt that you’ve been betrayed: that some other human being has wished you that much evil”

In flashback, we get a glimpse of the time before – Offred as she is now called -knows her former name to be forbidden. She had a partner – Luke, a daughter, friends, had enjoyed a college education a job, a good life. Flight across the border to Canada was attempted and violently stopped. There is the sense of life continuing perhaps fairly normally in the outside world.

the handmaid's taleThe society of Gilead is a strictly hierarchical one, all women are categorised – having a set role they must live by. The Aunts control the handmaids, the Marthas work as household servants, wives naturally enough are the women who enjoy the greatest social standing, while Econowives are married to lower ranking men, and do not enjoy the prestige of the wives, jezebels are those women forced to work as prostitutes while unwomen are those who are sterile, widows, gay or have been politically resistant to the new order. All handmaids are placed in a commander’s home for two years, if they fail (always their fault) they will be moved to another household – their name changing with each placement. Infertility is high, but the handmaids must conceive – and bring a healthy child into the world, these are rare enough events, but each handmaid is desperate to be successful. Too many failures will mean banishment to the colonies – toxic waste, near starvation and certain death. Sex is conducted within ‘the ceremony’ an act of hideous humiliation for both handmaid and wife (shudder!).

Women’s lives in this society are strictly controlled – they are no longer permitted to own property, have money, read, vote, make any decisions for themselves. The time before is rarely referred to, and in this new society women are pitted against each other. Econowives and Marthas dislike the handmaids seeing them as sluts – and the handmaids have little chance of forming friendships – as the Eyes are everywhere and the punishments for straying outside the rules frightening indeed.

I’m not going to say any more about the plot – so many people seem to be reading this classic novel at the moment. Then of course there is the new TV series – in which Margaret Atwood makes a cameo appearance, and is one of the producers. I made a remark on Twitter about Offred’s before name being revealed in the first episode – and Margaret Atwood herself replied – oops – apparently this was implied in the book and I missed it (oops) and this name was chosen by readers. I hadn’t known that obviously. So, who feels silly now? I do. Anyway, my book group friends and I are going to have so much to talk about – I can’t wait.

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heart goes last

Now I know I am not known for reading piles of recently published fiction, (despite 3 new books in a row) and neither am I known for reading much dystopian fiction – I have read it occasionally though. So it might at first glance appear that I am not the most reliable reviewer of a novel like The Heart Goes Last. However I do actually quite like dystopian fiction though I read very little of it – and I do appreciate great writing, and Margaret Atwood is generally regarded as a very great writer. I finished this book almost a week ago – and have only just sat down to write my review because I think I felt a bit uncomfortable about it.

Before I began reading The Heart Goes Last, I expected to absolutely love it – I thought it would be a fantastic novel, and so I dived in, only a couple of weeks after buying the book. I had naturally avoided reading any reviews before I got stuck in. As I read The Heart Goes Last – I found myself switching moods fairly often, sometimes I really liked what I was reading, I was fascinated by the premise and the Dystopian world that Atwood has created – which in the first third of the book felt pretty believable. Suddenly I would find myself irritated – parts of the story were just a bit nuts – I think I fell into that trap of thinking ‘Oh well it must be really good because Margaret Atwood wrote it.’ Having since had time to think about the book as a whole – I have decided it actually isn’t all that good really. Ultimately the book doesn’t really go anywhere – and now I have scanned few reviews on Goodreads – which seem very mixed – so I don’t think I am alone. I didn’t hate it, (goodreads 3 star rating) I really liked the first third and I couldn’t help but find it quite compelling – just ultimately unsatisfying.

“Oblivion is increasingly attractive to the young, and even to the middle-aged, since why retain your brain when no amount of thinking can even begin to solve the problem?”

Atwood’s world in this novel is at first a perfectly recognisable one, a world which following a social and economic crisis has become a very difficult place to live in for many people. Stan and Charmaine, a married couple in their thirties like many other people – have found themselves homeless, Stan is unemployed, and the couple are living in their car existing on the pittance that Charmaine brings back from the grotty bar where she has some work. Their position within the broken society that now exists is a precarious one, prey to the vicious gangs that roam the streets looking for victims. So when Charmaine sees an advertisement for the Positron Project in the town of Consilience it appears to be the answer to their prayers. The Positron Project promises safety, a beautiful comfortable home, jobs and a good life. In return for this suburban paradise all they will have to do is to swap their home for a prison cell every second month. One month they will live in the town, doing the jobs they are assigned, the next month their ‘alternatives’ will take their place in the house and do the jobs while Charmaine and Stan spend the time in Prison. Here they are also assigned jobs.

“The hedge doesn’t need trimming – it’s the first of January, it’s winter, despite the lack of snow – but he finds the activity calming for the same reasons nail biting is calming: it’s repetitive, it imitates meaningful activity, and it’s violent. The hedge trimmer emits a menacing whine, like a wasp’s nest. The sound gives him an illusion of power that dulls his sense of panic. Panic of a rat in a cage, with ample food and drink and even sex, though with no way out and the suspicion that it’s part of an experiment that is sure to be painful.”

Those in charge of the project claim their project will solve the housing and employment situation beautifully. Inside the town of Consilience living under the Positron Project, life is fairly perfect – or so it seems. Everyone is happy, they have beautiful comfortable homes, jobs to which they are perfectly suited, lovely food, bathrooms stocked with thick fluffy towels, and you turn on the radio and the cosy, dulcet tones of Doris Day come out. In prison, there are knitting circles and work that will benefit the whole of the town to get stuck into. The town has been based around a fifties ideal – which is very well done, and even helps to add to the chilling nature of the story – there is something comforting about the fifties we often think – but not here.

“The past is so much safer, because whatever’s in it has already happened. It can’t be changed; so, in a way, there’s nothing to dread.”

Of course there is the problem of the real criminals to be dealt with as the project gets underway – but of course someone has thought of that. It quickly becomes apparent that not everything in Positron is idyllic. After a little while, Stan and Charmaine each develop a passionate obsession about their ‘Alternative’ who occupies the house when they are in prison. It is this that leads to all sorts of trouble. It is forbidden to interact with their ‘Alternatives’ who in theory they should never meet anyway – the one day when it is possible being ‘switch over day.’ Sexual desire, guilt and misery in a plot that I have seen described as dark and wickedly funny. Well yes it is darkly comic in places, but possibly not wickedly funny, and there were moments that become just rather too bizarre. Living sex dolls, troops of created Elvis Presley and Marilyn Monroe ‘dolls’ on the loose in Las Vegas! It got a little too unbelievable really – and then didn’t really go anywhere – I suspect there will be a Positron book 2 – I’m not sure if I will bother though if there is. The one thing Atwood does do really well in The Heart Goes Last is to evoke the atmosphere of living within a deeply sinister environment.

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