Posts Tagged ‘Margaret Atwood’

I have had a much better reading month this month (hooray) but more of that in my monthly roundup post in a few days. One challenge has helped me get through more volumes during November and that’s #novnov. Some of the novellas probably don’t warrant a post all to themselves – and so I am combining three reads in one post – which is also helping me catch up. Apologies for the long post.

Murder in the Dark – Margaret Atwood (1984)

Murder in the Dark, a collection of what are described as prose poems ticked another reading challenge box for me. November is MARM (Margaret Atwood Reading month) and I usually try to read a couple of things but this year have only managed this little volume. Prose poems is probably a good description, or vignettes, they are generally too short to be considered short stories. It’s always impressive how much some writers like Margaret Atwood can say in just a few paragraphs.

These little pieces are fabulous examples of Atwood’s absolute brilliance – several very bizarre – others rather funny, childhood reminiscences and observations of life. I just the love the way Atwood has of looking at things. She exposes the frailties of human nature, the balance of power between the sexes is a theme we come across many times in this little collection.

In Making Poison a group of very young children mix up a big pot of poison – adding all kinds of noxious substances having little idea what they will do with it. She recalls stealing Horror comics from the drugstore – reading them with her friend on the street outside the funeral home. She recalls Boyfriends, Liking Men and the Victory Burlesk. She discusses something as mundane as Bread – but gives it a little Atwood kick – and we suddenly see it differently. Men and women swap roles in a piece titled Simmering and it the titular piece knowing when to call a halt to a game of Murder in the Dark is vital.

“Men’s novels are about how to get power. Killing and so on, or winning and so on. So are women’s novels, though the method is different. In men’s novels, getting the woman or women goes along with getting the power. It’s a perk, not a means. In women’s novels you get the power by getting the man. The man is the power. But sex won’t do, he has to love you. What do you think all that kneeling’s about, down among the crinolines, on the Persian carpet? Or at least say it. When all else is lacking, verbalization can be enough. Love. There, you can stand up now, it didn’t kill you. Did it?”

(from Women’s Novels)

These pieces are full of Atwood’s wisdom and wit, her feminism and intelligence shines through – but those who dislike very short pieces may want to swerve this one.

The Story of Stanley Brent – Elizabeth Berridge (1945)

This sweet little hardback of only about 80 pages, The Story of Stanley Brent is published by Michael Walmer has been on my tbr for well over a year. Simon’s recent reading of it – reminded me it was one I intended to read this month I’m delighted I did, I rather loved it.

It is the portrait of a very ordinary man – a very ordinary life. Although this novella is very short – Elizabeth Berridge does a wonderful job of portraying a whole life – a marriage, a career neither of which are particularly unique. It’s in Stanley Brent’s very ordinariness that the poignancy lies for me – there must have been countless men like Stanley in that generation.

Stanley proposes to his Ada in 1907 – after which follows a long engagement. Finally they marry – and suffer an excruciatingly awkward honeymoon with Ada utterly ignorant of the realities of married life – Stanley is left feeling terrible – suddenly seeing Ada as a stranger. A young man horribly unsure of how to fix things.

“The sight of the flat sands, the quietness of the night, emphasised by the slight sea-noise of dark waters, bought him uncomfortably face to face with himself. Time seemed absent. This was an hour that would not tally with his accustomed thoughts – not only was Ada a stranger to him, he was a stranger to himself. He was conscious of life and death flowing in and around him, desolating and building his spirit, testing and judging. He had never felt so helpless.”

It’s an inauspicious start – but they find their way in time.

 Stanley works in a firm of land agents in London, an old fashioned firm – when he is made a partner he and Ada can buy a house in the suburbs. Two daughters are born. He and Ada have different ideas – and while Ada thinks her husband should have some ambition, get himself into one of the new estate agent firms springing up in the suburbs – Stanley is content to stay in his old fashioned firm, that just don’t do the business it once did.

It’s hard to convey just how good this is – what Berridge achieves in this tiny volume is very impressive indeed. She presents us with a very realistic portrait of a couple often struggling to understand one another. She reveals their hopes, fears frustrations, parenting and frailties.

This is the sort of very short novella that really packs a punch, the characters and atmosphere of the piece are so memorable I am convinced it will really stay with me.

Under the Tripoli Sky – Kamal Ben Hameda (2011) translated by Adriana Hunter.

Another novella I have had tbr for a long time. One of the Peirene Press coming of age series Under The Tripoli Sky is set in the Tripoli of the 1960s. I love a coming of age story – and so that’s what drew me to it initially – no idea why I waited so long to read it.

Our narrator is Hadachinou a lonely boy – who undergoes a circumcision ceremony as the novella opens. In this segregated society, Hadachinou is able to slip through the sweltering streets virtually unnoticed, listening to the whispered conversations of the women, hearing their stories, a witness to their desires.

“They forget about me but I’m there, catching glimpses of them through the gaps where the tented awnings cross, watching.”

His friends are all young girls who don’t yet have to be segregated – he also likes the company of his aunts, his mother and her friends. This is a society where many woman are discontented with their lot, they have lots to complain of stories of violence meted out, for the slightest thing. He is a strange little witness to their lives – a boy who soon enough will soon take his own place in this patriarchal society.

His mother shares her own secrets with her best friend Jamila. A woman this adolescent boy finds an extraordinary presence in their home, when she comes to stay. Jamila is a woman much talked about in the community – gossip Great Aunt Nafissa tries to put a stop to. Jamila fuels his imagination at time when he is discovering his own desires.

This is an engaging little story of pre Gaddafi Libya, full of cultural insight of a society on the brink of change.

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My third read for this year’s #MARM was MaddAddam the final book in the trilogy of the same name. I have spaced out the three volumes quite widely – so I was pleased to see a little rounding up of the main points of each of the first two books in the front of this. It helped to refresh my memory a bit – although I have to say Year of the Flood has really stayed with me and remains my favourite of the three books.

While the events in Oryx and Crake and Year of the Flood run parallel to each other – MaddAddam moves the story of characters like Jimmy, Toby and Zeb forward.

It’s really hard to review the final book in a trilogy that other people may not have read – as a whole it’s a trilogy that is extraordinary in its scope and imagination. Saying that though – in her acknowledgements Margaret Atwood states that…

“Although MaddAddam is a work of fiction, it does not include any technologies or biobeings that do not already exist, are not under construction, or are not possible in theory.”

I think that gives us much food for thought – Margaret Atwood is often lauded for her astute, keen eyed view of the world – she seems to have her finger on the pulse of the world and its myriad issues. In this trilogy – she shows us how we could end up – reminding us, should we need it – what destruction we have wrought on our planet.

The ‘waterless flood’ (a plague) has swept the earth – there are a few ragged human survivors – and the children of Crake – the perfect, innocent species he created to take the place of human beings. Jimmy (or Snowman) befriended the Crakers – telling them stories of Oryx and Crake. Meanwhile, Toby, Adam One and the God’s Gardeners who we met in The Year of the Flood were scattered by the plague – prey to the evil Painballers – who attack, abuse, kill and rape with impunity. The Year of the Flood ends with Amanda being rescued from the Painballers and Toby observing the Gardener forgiveness feast. This novel picks up exactly where that one ends.

The Children of Crake move toward the group of human survivors, singing their endless song. The Painballers are tied up, but Toby hesitates to kill – and they escape – to pretty much everyone’s dismay. For me Toby is a recognisable Atwood heroine – she cares for others, has a powerful connection to the natural world, feeling things deeply – she harbours a secret love for Zeb and is jealous of one of the younger women who she thinks might cast her eye at Zeb. As Toby and the MaddAddamites settle themselves into the cob-house enclave – the Children of Crake – settle themselves nearby. Jimmy-the-snowman is in a Coma and the Crakers await his recovery by finding a new hero in Zeb.

“There’s the story, then there’s the real story, then there’s the story of how the story came to be told. Then there’s what you leave out of the story. Which is part of the story too.”

Toby starts to tell stories – stories of the world before – the chaos – and stories that will help move this new world forward. The Crakers – are innocents – they love the stories Toby tells – they ask questions continually – like children – why, how – tell it again. One of the most attentive listeners is Blackbeard a young Craker – keen to learn it’s to him that Toby reveals the secret of writing when he catches her writing in her journal.

“It had helped to keep her sane, that writing. Then, when time had begun again and real people had entered it, she’d abandoned it here. Now it’s a whisper from the past.”

Through Toby’s stories – we finally learn about Zeb and Adam and how they came to the God’s Gardeners. Zeb tells the stories to Toby and Toby relates them to the Crakers in a way they can understand. Atwood has always been a wonderful weaver of tales – stories within stories.

However, this new world is a difficult often hostile place. As the clever, wild pigoons attack the precious garden that Toby and the others tend with care – and with the lingering threat of the Painballers return – it’s clear that this small band of survivors will need much more than mere stories.

“Glenn used to say the reason you can’t really imagine yourself being dead was that as soon as you say, “I’ll be dead,” you’ve said the word I, and so you’re still alive inside the sentence. And that’s how people got the idea of immortality of the soul – it was a consequence of grammar. And so was God, because as soon as there’s a past tense, there has to be a past before the past, and you keep going back in time until you get to I don’t know, and that’s what God is. It’s what you don’t know – the dark, the hidden, the underside of the visible, and all because we have grammar …”

I hope it isn’t too much of a spoiler to say that there isn’t a big cymbals crashing kind of finale to this book – which I found especially fitting. There is a sense of things carrying on in this new world that humans have created – which for me was a little more comforting than a big drama. That said – there is a poignancy to the ending too for those of us who have followed certain characters through three instalments. There is also hope – which as a species we are clearly in need of.  

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So, this MARM I have found myself reading more Margaret Atwood than I thought I would manage – and as always it has been a joy. I am currently into the last seventy pages or so of MaddAddam – the third book in that trilogy of the same name. Last week I read Moral Disorder – and I absolutely loved it – a definite candidate for my book of the month. A collection of short stories – although that isn’t really an accurate description – as the stories though non-chronological feature the same character throughout. Moral Disorder can be read almost like a novel – in a similar way to Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge. I enjoy short stories a lot – and Atwood’s Stone Mattress had been my favourite of her collections until I read this one.

In these stories of the life of one woman – who is could easily be said, bears more than a passing resemblance to Atwood herself – the reader is taken on a journey across several decades. As well as not being entirely chronological – the tense changes too – many of the stories are told in the first person – others in the third person. While this might prevent us confusing Moral Disorder with being a novel – what does emerge is a wonderfully complete portrait of a woman’s life – the ups and downs of family life – from childhood through to late middle age. While we can see these stories as being very autobiographical – which I sense they are – the view is actually much broader – for me there was a sense of an entire generation represented through one woman, and her family.

The collection opens with Bad News in which a woman (who we come to know as Nell in subsequent stories) in late middle age reflects on age and what it means – how tenses define our lives – and this extract perfectly summing up how the rest of the book can be seen.

“These are the tenses that define us now: past tense, back then; future tense, not yet. We live in the small window between them, the space we’ve only recently come to think of as still, and really it’s no smaller than anyone else’s window.”

This view of past, present future is one I love in fiction as it highlights how connected everything is – how we as human beings are strongly connected to our pasts – and how the now we are in is so transitory.

In the second story The art of cooking and serving – we return to the summer when Nell was eleven – waiting anxiously for her mother to give birth to her new sibling. The anxiety come from the snatches of adult conversation that she has overheard – how her mother is getting a bit old for pregnancy – something might go wrong. Nell is knitting a layette for the baby to keep her busy – her father has made her responsible for looking after her mother while she is in this dangerous condition, the weight of responsibility is heavy – for the girl doesn’t really understand what it is that might happen. During the summer Nell and her mother go to the lakeside cabin where the family frequently holiday in summer – Nell’s father is away – and so the responsibility for her mother’s welfare rests on Nell’s young shoulders. They are a long way from a doctor – and Nell works out a plan for getting help should she need it.

The next story – The Headless Horseman – takes place about three years later – and now Nell is helping her mother look after her baby sister a lot. The child is a sensitive little thing, cries easily but adores her big sister following her around and wanting to be involved in everything she does. When Nell makes a headless horseman costume for Halloween – the result is a predictable scream fest – the toddler is terrified. What I loved in this story is how it switches between two time periods – the one in which the teenage Nell makes a Halloween costume that is less than successful – and one in which the adult siblings driving together to see their mother reminisce about the headless horseman costume. Anyone with a sibling must recognise that – those stories we keep and tell each other over and over – all those remember whens.

 In The Last Duchess – she recalls a high school teacher Miss Bessie – as Nell and her school friends edge nearer the possibility of ‘going on’ – ie university.

In The other Place – Nell is a young woman, having grown up in one time – the social landscape around her has changed considerably.

“At the time I’d set out, all women were expected to get married and many of my friends had already done so. But by the end of this period – it was only eight years, not so long after all – a wave had swept through, changing the landscape completely. Miniskirts and bell-bottoms had made a brief appearance, to be replaced immediately by sandals and tie-dyed T-shirts. Beards had sprouted, communes had sprung up, thin girls with long straight hair and no brassieres were everywhere. Sexual jealousy was like using the wrong fork, marriage was a joke, and those already married found their once-solid unions crumbling like defective stucco. You were supposed to hang loose, to collect experiences, to be a rolling stone.”

Through subsequent stories, like Monopoly, White Horse and the title story all told in the third person we watch Nell as she negotiates her relationship with Tig, the man she falls in love with. He is separated but still married with two boys – all of which her parents deeply disapprove. They live for a time on a farm, it’s not quite a rural idyll, there are difficulties to be negotiated and the locals think the barn is haunted. There are some chickens, then a few cows and an old white horse called Gladys and Nell’s sister comes to visit.

Moral Disorder is both touching and funny, keenly, and wisely observed – I’m surprised this collection isn’t talked about as much as some of Atwood’s other works. It really is a masterclass.

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Sneaking in an extra little post this week in honour of Margaret Atwood’s birthday – and #MARM – hosted by Marcie from Buried in Print and Naomi from Consumed by Ink.

I have been enjoying some Margaret Atwood reading for #MARM – a re-read of Surfacing which I reviewed last week – and Moral Disorder – which I have just finished. Despite previously saying I would leave my read of MaddAddam for another time, I find myself sat here contemplating it in a way which probably means I will start reading it later. November was going to be the month of little, tiny books I said – oh well the best laid plans and all that.

I’ve been thinking about how long I have been reading Margaret Atwood books – admittedly with gaps as it’s so easy to be distracted by other books. I must have begun to read her in the late 1980s when those virago editions pictured above began to emerge. Those are the titles I want to re-read the most – because I remember so little – and I wonder now if I wasn’t a little too young to appreciate them fully. I do know The Handmaid’s Tale eclipsed all the others in my memory – it was a novel that stayed with me clearly for many years – until I got around to re-reading it with my book group a little over three years ago. For me that book is still an out and out classic. I continued to read her novels through The Blind Assassin, The Robber Bride and the Alias Grace years – though it was much, much later that I began to read her short stories.

There have been a couple of books which I liked rather less (but I won’t talk about those) so I hope that shows I can be objective – but as the years go on I have become an even bigger fan.

In middle age I suppose I have come to appreciate her in a different way, finding I connected with her wisdom and keen eyed view of the world in a way I may not have done in my late teens and early twenties. I found my way to her shorter fiction and her dystopian/sci-fi novels and Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood – and how I loved them! I watched those tv adaptations of The Handmaid’s Tale and Alias Grace breathlessly. I longed to meet her – well at least be in the same room while she spoke, perhaps queue up and get something signed – but it wasn’t to be – when Margaret Atwood was at Hay – I was too slow to try and get tickets – when she was in my home city of Birmingham – guess what? I was in Devon. Oh well, I suspect Margaret Atwood would be rather less thrilled to meet me than I would be to meet her – so perhaps it’s best I keep my fan girling to myself.

Here are some links to some of the Margaret Atwood I have read in the last couple of years.

Hag-seed – the story of a man’s obsession to stage The Tempest and take revenge on the people who ruined him, she in fact tells an updated story of The Tempest. The old story within a story thing, that both Shakespeare and Atwood have employed before. With practised skill Atwood weaves a story of greed, revenge, grief, and magic. 

The Year of the Flood the second of the MaddAddam trilogy. The narrative of this book runs parallel to that of Oryx and Crake – in year twenty-five, a catastrophic event has effectively wiped out the vast majority of the population on earth. Strange, savage hybrid creatures wander the desolate landscape as an unforgiving sun beats down on the few fragile human beings left, and vultures hover overhead. Who, if anyone, is left alive?

Life Before ManThe novel’s three main characters are deftly explored, people trapped in damaging relationships, in thrall to their various love affairs. I found it immensely readable. The stories of these three people are told in alternate chapters with events told from each character’s perspective.

The Testaments – Not a book which requires an introduction I don’t think. The Testaments is not a continuation of The Handmaid’s Tale as such. Instead it is more of a re-examination of the Gilead we think we know, from Atwood’s 1985 classic. Set around fifteen years after the end of The Handmaid’s Tale, The Testaments offers us another view of the society of Gilead.

Anyway, it’s a big happy birthday to Margaret Atwood from me – if I had some cake I would eat some in her honour but the closest thing I have are gingernut biscuits. So, I will make a cup of tea break open the biscuits and carry on with my book.

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One of November’s reading events is MARM (Margaret Atwood reading month) which I have enjoyed joining in with before. For months my intention had been to finally read MaddAddam the third book in the trilogy of the same name, and to re-read Cat’s Eye which I read many years ago but can’t remember too much about. Both those are fairly chunky, and I am still reading fairly slowly, so I had a re-think. I decided to re-read Surfacing – which I remembered absolutely nothing about and would also count towards novellas in November.

This is a beautifully written short novel – there is a subtle complexity in the narrative – and several layers to be explored. There is a lot that is metaphorical and a good deal of introspection as the narrator explores her past and present self, and her past and present relationships. This is a novel about human behaviour, identity, personal and national, grief, loss and memory.

Surfacing was Margaret Atwood’s second novel published in 1973, a young unnamed divorcee returns to the remote Quebec island of her childhood to look into the disappearance of her father. She is travelling with her lover Joe, and another couple, David and Anna. David and Joe have been making an odd sort of film during the journey, filming anything that takes their fancy on a rented camera – the film is to be called Random Samples – because that is essentially what it is.  

Our narrator left the rural community where she grew up, to live a different kind of life. Her childhood home was a remote place on the side of a lake where she remembers her father taking the boat out on to the water, going off on expeditions with his friend Paul who lives nearby still, her mother invariably ill. This is the place where her brother almost drowned once. She had left, married, and never returned – her parents never knew about the divorce – she never told them the truth about her marriage or why it ended – she had sent them a postcard once and that was that. She had felt unable to return, unable to explain.

“They never knew, about that or why I left. Their own innocence, the reason I couldn’t tell them; perilous innocence, closing them in glass, their artificial garden, greenhouse. They didn’t teach us about evil, they didn’t understand about it, how could I describe it to them? They were from another age, prehistoric, when everyone got married and had a family, children growing in the yard like sunflowers; remote as Eskimoes or mastodons.”

Now her mother is dead, and her father appears to have vanished from his lake side cabin. Contacted by her father’s old friend Paul – she has come to try and find out what happened but has no intention of seeing her father if he should show up.

Now returning to the place where she grew up, she is overwhelmed by memories, glimpses of her mother sat on the sofa in the cabin by the lake – which after several years away looks smaller than it once did. She and Joe, David and Anna – opt to stay in the cabin, the men decide they should stay the week – enjoy the lake while they have the chance. The women undertake the domestic tasks, Anna we learn tries never to appear before her husband without make up on. There is a lot of feminist themes here, ideas of gender and identity explored by Atwood in her portrayal of these two couples. The lake is an important metaphor for all that is going on beneath – those memories that immediately start to surface – those things that lie hidden away unseen. The lake dominates the landscape here and the story.

“I learned about religion the way most children then learned about sex, not in the gutter but in the gravel and cement schoolyard, during the winter months of real school. They would cluster in groups, holding each others’ mittened hands and whispering. They terrified me by telling me there was a dead man in the sky watching everything I did and I retaliated by explaining where babies came from. Some of their mothers phoned mine to complain, though I think I was more upset than they were: they didn’t believe me but I believed them.”

Gradually we come to see that all is not well in either of these relationships, Anna and David’s apparent married idyl – hiding a really problematic, disturbing relationship. Our narrator is not happy, she is clearly psychologically scarred by things that happened in the time before she returned to the island. She and Joe want different things, and he seems unable or unwilling to see things from her point of view, and there is still so many things she has not talked about to him. She is a classic unreliable narrator – as the novel progresses we wonder how much of her perspective we can really trust.

“I leafed through all the men I had known to see whether or not I hated them. But then I realized it wasn’t the men I hated, it was the Americans, the human beings, men and women both. They’d had their chance but they had turned against the gods, and it was time for me to choose sides. I wanted there to be a machine that could make them vanish, a button I could press that would evaporate them without disturbing anything else, that way there would be more room for the animals, they would be rescued.”

There is quite a strong anti-American vibe throughout the novel – our narrator sees the Americans that come to the area as a disease – she wants nothing to do with them. This seems to be some sort of paranoia – as gradually we begin to see this fragile young woman’s mental state deteriorate – the narrative becomes more fractured.

I thoroughly enjoyed this re-read- and at the same time understand why after about thirty years I had remembered nothing about it. It was like reading it for the first time, which was a treat – as reading Margaret Atwood almost always is.

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October has flown by – and I have today arrived home from a week’s self-catering in Devon with my mum – we’re in a bubble. It was wonderful to get out of Birmingham for a little while and to see the sea. Though it is also nice to get home and be on my own again, and I am looking forward to my own bed tonight. My reading continues to be a little slow, though I sped up a little last week, just eight books read this month. While the numbers might not be huge – what I read was very good indeed.

I began the month reading The Last Resort by Pamela Hansford Johnson for Simon and Karen’s 1956 club. She is definitely an underrated writer – and I really enjoyed this complex, subtle novel. I have just bought another of her books to read soon.

Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid was my book group’s choice for October – and it proved a really good book to discuss. A thought provoking, compelling read into the bargain.

The Thursday Murder Club by Richard Osman a much anticipated debut – and it is such an enjoyable witty novel – quite deserving of all the hype. I loved the fact that the main characters are mainly older people.

From the British Library Women Writers series Tea is so Intoxicating by Mary Essex was a novel that was right up my reading alley. When David Tompkins decides to open a tea garden in his village not everyone is happy – including his wife.

I finally got around to reading The Finishing School by Muriel Spark, her final novel, which I bought for my Muriel Spark year of reading in 2018. It is sharp, witty and brings us full circle – showing her still at the height of her powers.

Clash by Ellen Wilkinson is a novel I have been wanting to read for ages – and when I plucked it from the shelf I knew instantly I would love it. Review still to come. A novel about the General Strike of 1926, trade union activism and the labour movement – I found it enthralling.

Barn 8 by Deb Olin Unferth is my book group’s November read which I decided to get on with before November’s reading challenges got in the way. I found it a really good, often unusual read about chickens, animal rights activists and their attempted audacious heist.

As I am writing I am finishing off Rhododendron Pie by Margaery Sharp, Margery Sharp’s first novel famously difficult and expensive to find is being re-issued by the lovely Dean Street Press in January.  They kindly sent me two e-books for review – and I’m afraid I just couldn’t wait to read this one – and I have to say I have enjoyed it very much.

So that was October – and now I am looking ahead to November. In November there are all kinds of reading challenges that can help distract us from everything else that is going on. November is MARM (Margaret Atwood reading month), Novellas in November, Non-fiction November and German Lit month. Phew!!

I am hoping to join in some if not all of these – not sure if I have anything German. However, I do have some Margaret Atwood set aside – and loads of novellas. So, Novellas in November is the challenge I am concentrating on – it is hosted by Bookish Beck and Cathy at 746 books. I may just manage to read more physical books if they are small. Looking through the pile I hastily got together I can see a few non-fiction titles of novella size too – ticking off two challenges. Similarly, I think I have decided to re-read Surfacing by Margaret Atwood – I can barely remember a thing about it – and its size make it perfect for Novellas in November. I am nothing though, if not a fickle reader, so I may not just read novellas – though I do have a fabulous selection to choose from.

What did you read in October? Are you joining in with any of these reading events?

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Margaret Atwood reading month provided me with the perfect excuse to read Hag-seed which I have had languishing on my tbr quite some time. In this novel Margaret Atwood has combined her consummate storytelling with a phenomenal understanding of Shakespeare. Hag-seed is a brilliant re-telling of The Tempest. Initially, that might have put me off a little, I love Shakespeare, though The Tempest isn’t a play I know well at all. I definitely know it a lot better now – Atwood is so clever – that I don’t think it really matters if you know the original well or not.

I have been impressed with Margaret Atwood’s fictional achievements before – but this novel is so clever, I can’t help but love the way her mind works. In the story of a man’s obsession to stage The Tempest and take revenge on the people who ruined him, she in fact tells an updated story of The Tempest. The old story within a story thing, that both Shakespeare and Atwood have employed before. With practised skill Atwood weaves a story of greed, revenge, grief and magic. In Hag-seed she is at her most compelling.

Felix Phillips is in his element as director of the Makeshiweg festival, where he is known for his vibrant, forward looking productions. Numb with grief over the recent death of his little daughter Miranda, Felix hadn’t noticed the gradually increasing ambition of his right hand man, who is always sure to be in the right place at the right time. Suddenly, Felix is out, his enemies have manoeuvred their way into position, and on the eve of Felix’s production of The Tempest, they strike. Felix finds himself escorted to his car by security, a pile of packed cardboard boxes waiting for him. Everything he was sure of is shaken, and as his fury mixes with his grief, Felix knows that one day he will get his revenge.

“What to do with such a sorrow? It was like an enormous black cloud boiling up over the horizon. No: it was like a blizzard. No: it was like nothing he could put into language. He couldn’t face it head-on. He had to transform it, or at the very least enclose it.”

Retiring to an isolated hovel he comes across by chance, Felix changes his name and deliberately buries himself away from anyone who knew him during his success at the festival. Living with ghost of his dead daughter – who Felix can conjure up at will, and who continues to grow as she would have done in life – years pass.

After several years, Felix takes a job teaching a theatre course at a nearby prison. The course runs for a few months each year, and each year Felix does a different Shakespeare play. The prisoners know him as Mr Duke, and he insists on his own particular rules, never having a moments trouble with any of the prisoners. His course has proved very successful, it’s seen as quite a privilege by the prisoners, with some, serving longer sentences, coming back in subsequent years to take part again. Felix’s next course at the prison is about to start in early January, when he learns of the perfect opportunity to take revenge on the men who betrayed him.

“What he couldn’t have in life he might still catch sight of through his art: just a glimpse, from the corner of his eye”

His enemies have now stepped into cushy ministerial jobs, decision makers, who hold the purse strings, and they will be paying a visit to the very prison where Felix holds his Shakespeare theatre course.

Felix immediately decides that his course that year will be about The Tempest. The course culminates in a performance that is videoed and shown to the rest of the prison via cctv. The inmates taking ‘Mr Duke’s’ course hang on his every word – he really pushes them intellectually; he doesn’t talk down to them and he promises them cigarettes.

“Watching the many faces watching their own faces as they pretended to be someone else—Felix found that strangely moving. For once in their lives, they loved themselves.”

Felix has the perfect group of people around him to help put his plan into action. Twelve years have passed since the treachery at the Makeshiweg festival, but never has Felix’s desire for revenge diminished. So, with the help of Leggs, PPod, Bent Pencil and others, Felix, becoming more Prospero like every moment finally gets to stage the production of The Tempest he has dreamed of – with a twist.

The wraith like ghostly figure of Miranda, now fifteen years old, is never far away – only it’s just Felix who can see her, so he enlists the help of an actress he worked with in his previous life. Leaving nothing to chance, Felix spends weeks planning and resourcing his great production. The stage is set…

I really enjoyed this novel, so fantastically readable, and so blinklin’ clever I just wanted to cheer.

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Although I have pre-ordered new releases a few times before it’s not something I do very often – and never have I felt swept along by the hype of new book like I was this one. If I am honest, I had never thought that The Handmaid’s Tale needed a sequel – but once the fact of it was a known thing – I wanted to read it. So, yes, the hype has been insane, but the book is honestly excellent, it’s an absolute triumph on many levels. One of the ideas I love most in this novel is how the very act of storytelling can be an act of rebellion – even if, maybe especially if, you can’t be sure your words will ever find a reader.

“Where there is an emptiness, the mind will obligingly fill it up. Fear is always at hand to supply any vacancies, as is curiosity. I have had ample experience with both.”

I love Margaret Atwood – I find her so wise and inspiring, and I really love The Handmaid’s Tale which I re-read with my book group a couple of years ago. Re-reading Handmaid is a good idea I think if you’re embarking on The Testaments many moons after first visiting Gilead.

I wasn’t sure exactly how to go about this review – so many people are reviewing it at the moment, and I have been avoiding blogger reviews until I had written my own. I am going to attempt to keep this as spoiler free as possible, certainly there will be no major plot spoilers, though if you’re going to be reading this next week proceed with caution. (There are THT spoilers ahead though).

“The corrupt and blood-smeared fingerprints of the past must be wiped away to create a clean space for the morally pure generation that is surely about to arrive. Such is the theory.”

It is fairly well known I think that The Testaments is not a continuation of The Handmaid’s Tale as such. Instead it’s more of a re-examination of the Gilead we think we know, from Atwood’s 1985 classic. Set around fifteen years after the end of The Handmaid’s Tale, The Testaments offers us another view of the society of Gilead. We all know how that earlier book ended with Offred heading off who knows where in the back of a van. Many of us wanted to know more – wondered what became of Offred, the symposium at the end of The Handmaid’s Tale leaves us with the idea that at some point Gilead ended – but how? Offred’s position in that earlier novel was such that her view of Gilead was necessarily narrow – there was just so much she couldn’t know or wasn’t allowed to know; her perception of Gilead’s society is therefore skewed. What The Testaments does brilliantly is to open up Gilead to the reader in way Offred’s account wasn’t able to. Atwood is brilliant at creating an altered world, a society with different rules and traditions.  

The Testaments is told in three different voices – the testaments of the title. The first testament we discover within a page or two is being related by Aunt Lydia – who readers will remember from the earlier novel – a character who has become a huge part of the TV spin off series.

“Two roads diverged in a yellow wood, and I took the one most travelled by. It was littered with corpses, as such roads are. But as you will have noticed, my own corpse is not among them.”

The other two testaments are told by young women – looking back at their adolescence/teenage years, as they came of age and began to make discoveries about the world they were living in. One of these young women has grown up in Gilead, the other has grown up across the boarder in Canada, where she has witnessed protests against Gilead, and the visits of the Pearl Girls – sort of missionaries from Gilead. The stories that Atwood weaves through these three testimonies are so compelling, full of twists and surprises, as ever her storytelling is perfect – and she writes so well too. There is such wisdom in this novel, such understanding of how people act – there is also so many wonderful, quotable nuggets of excellence.

“You don’t believe the sky is falling until a chunk of it falls on you.”

When we consider totalitarian regimes – and the world has seen its fair share of them – what we often ask ourselves is how are ordinary people persuaded to collaborate with what they must know to be evil? This question is explored in the story of Aunt Lydia particularly, and it is a fascinating element, it’s a chilling idea, that intelligent people, previously politically unengaged can be so easily coerced.

“You pride yourself on being a realist, I told myself, so face the facts. There’s been a coup, here in the United States, just as in times past in so many other countries. Any forced change of leadership is always followed by a move to crush the opposition. The opposition is led by the educated, so the educated are the first to be eliminated.”

The Testaments is a wonderful achievement, for an author to return to her fictional world after so long, and to do it so convincingly is extraordinary.

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A shorter review today.

You may remember that when I was writing my review recently of The Birthday Boys by Beryl Bainbridge, I discovered I had made a terrible mistake in my A Century of Books. 1993 turned out to be my troublesome year – though after an initial panic I discovered I had had another 1993 title after all. Well this little volume ended up being my quick replacement 1993 read.

A Virago Keepsake is a book that someone on Twitter sent me (and I am ashamed to say I can’t remember who it was), it is a rather lovely little blast from the past. A volume that was obviously once given away free (with a newspaper or a magazine I assume) it was produced to celebrate Virago’s twentieth anniversary. With an introduction by Harriet Spicer it is not at all clear who compiled or edited this collection.

Twenty pieces by or about Virago writers – many of them reminiscences of the beginnings of Virago, and the start of careers.

Probably because of the date of this little volume, and the time these pieces were written – many of these pieces discuss the women’s movement of the 1970s – a key time for many of the women writing in this volume.

“That was in the mid-seventies, when Virago occupied a single room in a crumbling building on one of the grubbier streets in Soho. You walked up several flights of none-too-clean stairs to get to it, past an establishment which was – I think – a hairdresser’s, but which sticks in my mind as a massage parlour. Certainly there were a lot of men in raincoats hanging around. I prepared ripostes, in case of sudden stairway unbuttonings – ‘Listen pal, where I come from we put toothpicks through those and serve them on soda crackers’ – but I never had to use them. Maybe my own raincoat was daunting; or maybe the wind of Virago’s name had already gone round it.”
(Margaret Atwood – Dump Bins and Shelf Strips

It was a time when so many strong women’s voices began to be heard. I couldn’t help but reflect on the movements we have seen gather momentum more recently across social media platforms – it seems that while the slogans on the placards change – the fight goes on – but it began I think, with many of these women, and others like them – whose names are less well known.

“…in the last twenty years scores of those lost women writers of the past have come back from obscurity to be rediscovered in their green Virago dresses by a new generation.”
(Elaine Showalter – writing a literature of their own)

Virago did so much for women’s writing, bringing back those voices that had fallen silent as fashions changed – and at the same time gave us new ones.

The first few pieces in this volume – were a treat, Maya Angelou, Margaret Atwood, Nina Bawden, A S Byatt on Willa Cather, got this volume off to a blisteringly good start. To be honest other pieces were rather less memorable. Though I also thoroughly enjoyed reading Kathleen Dayus’s reminiscence on how she came to be published by Virago. Grace Nichols expresses herself best through verse – and the extracts she inserts here are wonderful. Deborah Tannen; not a writer I knew before, discusses what she calls The Real Hilary Factor, the Hilary in question, Hilary Clinton, and her (at the time) much discussed impact on the American Presidential election. I would love to know Tannen’s thoughts now – two years after Hilary Clinton ran for president herself.

A collection of some really interesting essays, and very much of its time I think – which in itself is fascinating. Rather glad that I had to read this – it might have languished even longer had I not ferreted it out.

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life before an

I was delighted that one of the Margaret Atwood novels I had tbr fitted snugly into one of the last years of my A Century of Books and I could join in with Margaret Atwood reading month, hosted by Buried in Print and Consumed by Ink.

Life Before Man is a fairly early Atwood novel, one I had missed in the late eighties when I first began reading her novels. In this novel, Atwood’s characters are not always very likeable – but I really don’t think that matters. The novel’s three main characters are deftly explored, people trapped in damaging relationships, in thrall to their various love affairs. I found Life Before Man immensely readable and thoroughly enjoyed it.

The stories of these three people are told in alternate chapters with events told from each character’s perspective.

Elizabeth is a woman struggling with grief – her lover Chris has recently taken his own life, and she can barely function for the silent rage inside her. Unhappily married to Nate, the two have lived separate lives from within the same house for a while. Her two little girls are oblivious to their mother’s turmoil, though even they sense something is wrong. They plan joyfully for Halloween, lighting jack-o-lanterns while it is still light. Elizabeth lies on her bed listening from a faraway place inside her.

“It used to touch her, that excitement, that fierce joy, the planning that would go on for weeks behind the closed door of their room. It used to twist something in her, some key. This year they are remote from her. The soundless glass panel of the hospital nursery where she would stand in her housecoat for each of them in turn, watching the pink mouths open and close, the faces contort.
She can see them, they can see her. They know something is wrong. Their politeness, their evasion, is chilling because it’s so perfectly done.”

Elizabeth’s husband Nate is a gentle, weak soul, but his relationship with his wife is in the past. Once Nate was a lawyer, but he gave that up to make bespoke wooden rocking horses in his basement. Nate knew all about Chris, everyone at the Museum where Elizabeth and Chris worked knew about them, there were no secrets, no sneaking about, just a strange chilly kind of politeness. All the time Elizabeth was seeing Chris, Nate had been seeing Martha. Nate and Elizabeth had an agreed timetable as to who was out when, and Elizabeth would meet up with Martha for a drink from time to time, to gauge how things stood. With Chris dead, Nate feels there is something of an imbalance – and with his relationship with Martha pretty much having run its course he ends his affair. Now though, he has his eye on a replacement.

Lesje is the innocent,and the young woman who Nate is interested in, though she seems far fonder of dinosaurs than men. Lesje, a young woman of Jewish/Ukrainian parentage works in the museum’s palaeontology department, her mind is never far from her favourite subject. However, soon enough the two are entering into an affair, despite the fact that Lesje is already living with William.

“Copulating with William was not unpleasant she thinks, but neither was it memorable. It was like sleeping with a large and fairly active slab of Philadelphia cream cheese. Emulsified.”

life before man]Lesje soon realises that in taking on Nate – she is also taking on his daughters, and Elizabeth is always in the background – or on the phone, not to mention around at work. Nate is finding things financially very tight – and his wooden horses are no longer selling very well. Everything becomes rather fraught.

One of my favourite aspects of the novel – aside from the wonderful writing – is the story of Elizabeth growing up, told in flashback. Elizabeth and her sister were taken into their Auntie Muriel’s house as young girls – the reasons become sadly apparent as the novel progresses. Auntie Muriel’s house was a joyless place of rules and embroidery.

“It’s the third of January. Elizabeth is sitting on the slippery rose-colored chesterfield in her Auntie Muriel’s parlor, which is truly a parlor and not a living room. It’s a parlor because of the spider and the fly. It isn’t a living room, because Auntie Muriel cannot be said to live.

Auntie Muriel is both the spider and the fly, the sucker-out of life juice and the empty husk. Once she was just the spider and Uncle Teddy was the fly, but ever since Uncle Teddy’s death Auntie Muriel has taken over both roles.”

Elizabeth’s life with Auntie Muriel and the fate suffered by her sister has blighted her life – and Elizabeth has never really recovered from it or forgiven her Aunt. This aspect of Elizabeth’s story is much easier to sympathise with, and in Auntie Muriel – who we mainly she through the filter of Elizabeth’s memory – Atwood has created a marvellously horrible character.

Hanging over the heads of all these people is the ghost of Elizabeth’s dead lover. Atwood’s characters are wonderfully realistic and she has a great ear for dialogue. As much as the story of these people has tragic undertones, Life Before Man is also frequently funny.

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