In Which I Finally Read The Handmaid’s Tale

There are always books that one means to read, that ‘should’ be read – and for me one of them was The Handmaid’s Tale. It was published before I was even born, so it has always been popular, always been revered in my experience. This book was always on my list, always something I thought I should read, something that I might find interesting. The new TV series based on the book, coming out later this year, finally pushed me to buy a copy and actually read it.

I was surprised how short it is (my copy is about 300 pages). When I’d read about it before it had always seemed like this grand story that needed time and patience; and in some ways this was true. For a book of its length, there is an awful lot of ‘content’ in The Handmaid’s Tale. There is an awful lot left unsaid, or only implied. Our narrator, Offred, shares her story but is also careful and guarded, only telling what she chooses. We never learn her real name, for example. The ending is also somewhat ambiguous.

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Margaret Atwood apparently classes this novel as ‘speculative fiction’ rather than ‘science fiction’ and I think that’s correct. It is a dystopian novel above anything else, an alternative history of America. But like science fiction it is very detailed and ‘high concept’ with a lot of context needed to really understand what’s going on. Offred gives this to us in pieces so that at first we are lost and following her blindly, but as the book goes on we get more of the wider picture and start to form our own opinions. This was also my experience with the other Atwood novel I’ve read, Alias Grace. That novel has a multitude of perspectives and truths, and while The Handmaid’s Tale is not quite so psychological, it is multi-faceted and filled with the possibility of deceit and betrayal – amongst the characters, but also for the reader.

Atwood likes to challenge her readers, and this novel was certainly challenging to me. It was an infuriating mix of fascinating story, intriguing narrative technique, and utter misery and oppression, for both the characters and the reader. I can’t say I really enjoyed The Handmaid’s Tale, and it took me a while to read because sometimes I just didn’t want to hear about the nightmarish world that Offred inhabits. During my breaks between reading I wondered whether the book seemed like a feminist novel to me, and in some ways it does – it is about women fighting back. But it also isn’t. Women have been complicit in creating the Republic of Gilead. You wonder what the Wives, Aunts, Econowives, and Marthas really think about the way they live – they have a better deal than the Handmaids, but they are still trapped, and any power or agency they have has been given to them by the men.

I also wondered whether the book is trying to make a statement about religion, or rather when you reduce religion to its fundamentalist principles and then use those for your own gain – on a personal or national level. The Republic of Gilead is ruled by religion, but none of the characters we encounter seem very concerned with it in any form except one of authority. Do any of them really believe in God? Offred mentions ‘true believers’ but they seem few and far between.

One thing that frustrated me was the lack of detail about the rules, and how things became this way – but I suppose that is the point. Offred only tells us what she wants to, and she is clearly traumatised by the whole situation and what she has gone through before – thankfully we do learn about her past throughout the novel. I think this is also just me as a reader – some people are happy with ambiguity in a novel, and others are not. For me, it felt like there was so much more that could have been explored, and while I appreciate that Atwood chose to be ambiguous in order to leave open possibilities, and to encourage the reader to speculate, I didn’t really like this side of The Handmaid’s Tale. At the end I felt unsatisfied, and wished there was more discussion, more investigation. Everything was just so vague and uncertain. I know a lot of people love this book, but it just didn’t do it for me. Atwood is a masterful writer, especially in her carefully planned plots and her manipulative narrators, but for me The Handmaid’s Tale was too frustrating, too impenetrable, too miserable, and too unpleasant for me to enjoy. Still, it’s an inspired concept and I am curious to see what the new TV adaptation will be like – although I know for certain that it won’t be any fun.

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Originally published in 1985 by McClelland & Stewart. Reprinted many times, most recently by Vintage. I read the Vintage Future Classics 2005 edition (pictured above).

Purchase from Wordery and Foyles.

 

The best books of 2015

My apologies for the mixture of photos in this post – I have lent out some of the books featured so wasn’t able to take a nice photo of them and had to find images of the covers online. Not ideal, but there you go…

 

Somehow 2015 is over, and I have naturally been thinking about all the books I’ve read this year, and which was the best, and the worst, and which ones were in between. According to GoodReads I red 34 books in 2015 (one off my target of 35!), which is less than I usually read – I blame the new, busier job I started half way through the year!

I read a couple of super dupers early in the year, namely Bonjour Tristesse by Francoise Sagan, and Tracks by Robyn Davidson. Two very different books, but I loved them both. Bonjour Tristesse is sort of a coming-of-age tale, but it’s also about love and relationships and jealousy, and it is beautifully crafted. Tracks could also be seen as a coming-of-age tale, though it is about the author finding herself in the desert, which is a bit different to a posh holiday by the sea. It is fascinating, engaging, emotional, and just brilliant. It also proves why dogs are better than people.

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One of my very favourite books this year was The Blue Tattoo by Margot Mifflin. It was a random book I heard about on Twitter, but it was just wonderful to read. It is the story of the life of Olive Oatman, who was captured by Native Americans in the 1800s and lived with them for a few years before being ‘returned’ to ‘her people’. There are many other stories like Olive’s but this is a good place to start with this genre.

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The next amazing book I read was The Mighty Dead by Adam Nicolson. I was umming and ahhing about this one, but then Carolyn’s amazing post convinced me I must read it. And it was wonderful! Even thinking about it now fills me with hope and wonder. It celebrates everything about Homer and demonstrates why The Odyssey and The Iliad are so integral to the development of Western literature, and why we should all appreciate them more.

(image: goodreads.com)
(image: goodreads.com)

Since then I’ve mostly liked the books I’ve read (with one notable exception), so I’m just going to pick out a few…

I adored Forgotten Fatherland by Ben McIntyre. It popped up in my GoodReads recommendations, and it is one of the weirdest and most brilliant books I have ever read. It tells the story of Elisabeth Nietszche (sister of the philosopher) and the Aryan colony she set up in Paraguay with her husband. They were essentially early versions of Nazis, and in later life, when she returned to Germany, Elisabeth was a friend of Hitler and his party. He even came to her funeral. It has to be read to be believed.

(image: goodreads.com)
(image: goodreads.com)

I also very much enjoyed the three Shirley Jackson books I have read this year: Hangsaman, The Haunting of Hill House, and We Have Always Lived in the Castle. They are all weird and strange and brilliant, and I loved all of them a lot. I am now on a mission to read everything Shirley Jackson ever wrote, and she has set a lot of wheels in motion in my head with my own writing. If I could be a modern-day version of her as a writer, I’d be happy. More Shirley in 2016!

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I must recommend the two books about mental health that I read this year: The Last Asylum by Barbara Taylor and Girl, Interrupted by Susanna Kaysen. The former is quite dark and a bit bleak, though with a hopeful ending, and was really fascinating. I preferred reading Girl, Interrupted as it was less matter-of-fact and more about a very personal experience. These two books work in different ways, but both are illuminating, moving, and very well-written.

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And lastly I want to mention the book I recently posted about, Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood. It is the first book of Atwood’s I have read, and I think it was a good place for me to start. This is more my kind of thing than her science fiction/fantasy novels, and I will definitely read more of her work – just not all of it. I loved Alias Grace for a lot of reasons – I loved the setting and the atmosphere, the descriptions of daily life in Victorian Canada (and learning about that country’s history), and I loved the ambiguity and nuance of Grace and her story. Read more in my recent post here.

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So there you have it! The best books I have read this year. I am looking forward to many more fantastic reads in 2016.

What have been your best books of 2015?

 

 

‘Alias Grace’ and the Concept of the Fallen Woman

Any reader of Victorian literature, or any student of the history of the period, will be aware of the concept of the fallen woman. If not, the Wikipedia page is a good place to start. It’s a depressingly detailed page. For an era in which society began to move away from the government of Christianity (thank you Darwin and your fellow evolutionists!), the 19th century was one that made a national phenomenon out of the concept of a woman fallen from God’s Grace.

Grace Marks, the protagonist of Alias Grace, was a real person. In 1843 she was convicted of murdering her employer, Mr Kinnear, and suspected of the murder of his housekeeper, Nancy Montgomery. This brought her to the public attention, and eventually, to that of Margaret Atwood. Alias Grace is a fictional account of Grace’s life, the murders, and her time in prison afterwards. Her supposed accomplice is James McDermott, who also worked for Mr Kinnear. He was hanged, but she was spared that sentence at the last moment, and sent to prison. She became a momentary celebrity, with the trial being covered widely in the media.

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The frame of the novel consists of meetings, in prison, between Grace and Dr Simon Jordan. He is interested in criminal behaviour and mental health, and aspires to open his own modern asylum with progressive treatments. He meets with Grace and asks her about the murders; during her trial she stated that she could not remember most of what happened, and Dr Jordan spends a lot of his time trying to get her to remember. Even though large sections of the book are narrated by Grace, we are never quite sure exactly how much she does or does not remember. Grace is an unreliable narrator, but so is Margaret Atwood.

One of the things Dr Jordan wants Grace to speak about is the relationship between her and McDermott. In the papers at the time of the trial it is claimed that she is his ‘paramour’, implying they are lovers. This incriminates Grace further by implying she colluded with McDermott entirely, and that they had the same aims. Grace’s version is that they were not lovers, that she did not like him, and that he killed both Kinnear and Nancy. She was there at the time, and tried to convince him not to do it; that was all. During the trial the media, as well as the members of the court, are frankly obsessed by the question of whether or not Grace and McDermott were lovers, and so is Dr Jordan. This is partly to establish their relationship, and how this played a part in the murders; but it also because of the desire for scandal and sensationalism. If it was proved that Grace has slept with McDermott, she would be even more guilty. Even if proved innocent she would still be guilty of premarital sex, and would still be judged by society.

Her apparent lack of memory makes her something of an enigma during the trial, and indeed she is still very enigmatic with Dr Jordan – even in her first person narrative. People want to understand her, to understand the mind of a person who has committed a crime, and they are obsessed with her virtue. She must either be innocent and therefore ‘pure’ and ‘good’ as a woman should be; or she should be guilty and therefore prove the weakness and inherent sin of woman, and be ‘fallen’. Society condemns her to be one or the other, and in my opinion she is somewhere in between, like most people. As with our modern treatment of female murderers, Grace is demonised so much partly because she is a woman, and we find it harder to believe that women can be as evil as men. As soon as they show any sign of wrongdoing, in any way, we are very quick to demonise them. Look at the media portrayals of female murderers, such as Aileen Wournos or Myra Hindley, or even those of non-criminals that are perceived as doing something wrong, such as Teresa May or Katie Hopkins. These women may do things we don’t like (or that are monstrous in case of the two former), but they are always treated differently to men who do similar things. How could a woman kill another person, or a child? How could a woman be tough or vitriolic?

The duality of ‘pure vs fallen’ still exists today, even without the explicitly religious context. In the eyes of the public, and of Dr Jordan, Grace must be one or the other, and there is little room for complexity in her character. The Victorian ignorance of the human psyche is frustrating, but the demonisation of women is infuriating. Mental illness is also demonised to some extent, and as the novel goes on it seems that this may affect Grace too. I’m not going to write about what happens at the end of the novel for those who haven’t read it, but the duality is very clear there as well. Grace must be either an angel or a demon, and nothing in between. Women must be either the angel in the house, or the demon in the asylum.

For anyone to be equal, they should be allowed to show their complexity and humanity rather than conform to a stereotype. Grace is trapped within hers, and it affects her whole life. If she had been a man she would either have been hanged with McDermott, or sent to prison forever and forgotten about. Dr Jordan is so fascinated with her partly because of the ambiguity over her guilt, and also because she is a woman in her particular situation. We are never quite sure whether she is guilty or not, and in some ways that was the right choice on the part of Atwood; how can we ever know the reality of another person, or what really happened? How can we ever know if a person is good or evil – or indeed if it’s possible to just be one or the other?

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Alias Grace was first published in Canada and the UK in 1996 by McLelland & Stewart, and Bloomsbury Publishing. I read the 2001 Virago paperback edition (pictured above).

Purchase from Foyles here.

Kind of a random blog post that’s kind of related to Christmas

Hello all, my apologies for not posting for almost a month! I have been busy at work which = super tired, plus I have been reading quite slowly recently for some reason, so I haven’t had many books to review. I did finish Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood the other week, and have a brilliant (ha!) blog post on it planned out, but haven’t had the time to sit down and write it. I’m aiming to do that this weekend, promise.

I’ve also had some non-serious health issues that have kept me from the blog. So there’s that.

Luckily, I am super excited about Christmas and going on holiday to Copenhagen just before (woohoo!) so I will be sure to blog about that and post some photos, which will hopefully be good and christmassy.

For my Christmas reading, I’ve got the second half of Lady Audley’s Secret by Mary Elizabeth Braddon to read, and then I think it’ll be on to some more of The Early Stories of Truman Capote, which I’ve dipped into but not really spent that much time with. I have, as usual, quite a few unread books, so I’ll have to take some time to choose the next book to dive into!

Reviews-wise, I’ll soon be revieweing Look at Me by Sarah Duguid, which is a Big Title for Tinder Press next year. Learn more about it here. I’ll also post about Lady Audley and those early stories from the young Truman – they are very interesting indeed.

I’ll try to post as much as I can over the Christmas holidays. Are you all as excited about Christmas as me?!

Here’s a Christmas puppy for you: