Some Thoughts on Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985)

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This isn’t a proper review of Atwood’s famous novel but some of my impressions and reactions to it and a brief summary. Since the US election, the sales of books like 1984 and the Handmaid’s Tale have risen. While I had read the former, I hadn’t read Margaret Atwood’s novel. In many ways it wasn’t what I expected at all. It’s interesting, complex, and clever but I don’t think it’s a book I’ll read again. There are amazing observations, long quotable passages, but as a whole, I found it dull. Even so, reading it infuriated me, which certainly proves that it’s a powerful book. Interestingly though, the element that triggered this response is an element that I haven’t seen mentioned in any of the reviews I’ve come across but it’s something that is essential to totalitarian and oppressive societies. The aspect I’m referring to is the instrumentalising of the oppressed. No matter what toxic system/government/injustice, it is hardly ever maintained without the help of the oppressed. This complicity of the oppressed is something that infuriates me in real life so much that I couldn’t overlook it. The fact that people don’t mention it, shows how astute Atwood’s depictions were. Just like in real life, it’s something so upsetting that it’s like a blind spot.

What is The Handmaid’s Tale about?  The book is set in a near future, in the state of Gilead, formerly known as United States of America. A series of ecological disasters and war have led to its people being mostly sterile. After a coup, a totalitarian group of fanatic Christians has taken power. Women are divided into groups. Those married to government officials, those who breed for those who can’t have children and those who are used in other ways – sent to the colonies where they will discard toxic waste, or those used to make the system work, instruct the breeding women.

Offred, the narrator, is one of the Handmaid’s, destined to breed. At the time when the story is set, this whole system is new, so women like Offred are the first of their kind. What makes their fate particularly harrowing is that they knew a “before”. They used to live normal lives that were pretty much the same lives we still live today. That life ends when their bank accounts are closed and all their money and belongings go to their husbands. Those who’ve had children are then ripped from their families and assigned to rich couples who can’t have children.

Offred describes her life in minute details. They don’t have any freedom at all. They are all dressed the same and basically not allowed to do or say anything, unless it’s according to the new laws. Public executions are a means to make everyone obedient. But there’s an underground movement and, as it seems Offred met one of the women of this movement.

I’ll stop the summary here because if you’ve not read it you might enjoy finding out, how this story is told. It’s structure is one of the best things and the only element that contains a glimmer of hope in an otherwise dark and depressing tale.

Obviously, reading about a world in which women are owned by men and have no freedom whatsoever, is scary and infuriating but that’s nothing compared to the fact that women are in charge of the “training” of the handmaids. The way in which Atwood portrays how this system is regulated and reinforced is so clever.

There is more than one kind of freedom, said Aunt Lydia. Freedom to and freedom from. In the days of anarchy, it was freedom to. Now you are being given freedom from. Don’t underrate it.

The quote shows that some women accept the explanations given by the government. They also accept to be the instrument of the government. In some instances because they believe that women are, in many ways better off than before, but also because becoming executors, helps them to escape either death or being worked to death in one of the toxic landfills.

Why is it that victims enforce the system that exploits them? Fear and self-preservation are some of the reasons, but there’s also something far more toxic – they have internalized the system.

The Handmaid’s Tale is bleak but there’s a glimmer of hope, as I mentioned before. While some of the oppressed help keep up the system, there are many who plot an uprising.

Before ending this post, I’d like to mention one other aspect that I found chilling. One reason why women were so easily disempowered was because pre-Gilead society didn’t use cash but only credit cards. That way it was easy to stop the women’s access and transfer their money to their husband’s account and to disempower them completely. They didn’t even have enough cash to buy a ticket to somewhere else and escape. I found this chilling because I know a great many people who say that we are moving away from cash and to the exclusive use of cards/online banking etc.

When The Handmaid’s Tale was published, readers thought that Atwood depicted a Muslim society. Maybe she did. I think we shouldn’t read it like that. We should read it as a portrayal of the belief system and the functioning of a totalitarian government. Thinking that she wrote about a Muslim society is something we cannot afford. It can happen in other societies as well.

Now on to something different. Look at those covers! And I haven’t even posted all of those I found. Mine is the one on the far left. It’s not my favourite. The one I’m most familiar with is the second to the left, the one I like the most is the fifth from the left but I actually find the first and the last to do the book more justice. Do you have a favourite?

Literature and War Readalong March 31 2015: The Disappeared by Kim Echlin

The Disappeared

Kim Echlin’s novel on the war in Cambodia is the first title of this year’s Literature and War Readalong.

I chose The Disappeared for various reasons the most obvious being that we haven’t read anything on the war in Cambodia so far. The fact that it was nominated for many awards and has been translated into 19 languages made it a worthy choice as well. Another reason was that it came highly recommended by one of my favourite bloggers (Gavin from Page247) who sadly has stopped blogging in 2013.

Kim Echlin is a Canadian author, journalist, and educator. She has published a couple of other novels before The Disappeared and a new novel is due this year.

Here are the first sentences

Mau was a small man with a scar across his left cheek. I chose him at the Russian market from a crowd of drivers with soliciting eyes. They drove bicycles and tuk tuks, rickshaws and motos. A few had cars. They pushed in against me, trying to gain my eye, to separate me from the crowd.

The light in Mau’s eyes was a pinprick through black paper. He assessed and calculated. I chose him because when he stepped forward, the others fell back. I told him it might take many nights. I told him I needed to go to all the nightclubs of Phnom Penh. The light of his eyes twisted into mine. When I told him what I was doing, the pinprick opened and closed over a fleeting compassion. Then he named his price, which was high, and said, I can help you, borng srei.

And some details and the blurb for those who want to join

The Disappeared by Kim Echlin (Canada 2009), War in Cambodia, Novel, 336 pages.

After more than 30 years Anne Greves feels compelled to break her silence about her first lover, and a treacherous pursuit across Cambodia’s killing fields. Once she was a motherless girl from taciturn immigrant stock. Defying fierce opposition, she falls in love with Serey, a gentle rebel and exiled musician. She’s still only 16 when he leaves her in their Montreal flat to return to Cambodia. And, after a decade without word, she abandons everything to search for him in the bars of Phnom Penh, a city traumatized by the Khmer Rouge slaughter. Against all odds the lovers are reunited, and in a political country where tranquil rice paddies harbour the bones of the massacred, Anne pieces together a new life with Serey. But there are wounds that love cannot heal, and some mysteries too dangerous to know. And when Serey disappears again, Anne discovers a story she cannot bear.

Haunting, vivid, elegiac, The Disappeared is a tour de force; at once a battle cry and a piercing lamentation, for truth, for love.

Literary fiction of the highest order, this is an unforgettable novel set against the backdrop of Cambodia’s savage killing fields.

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The discussion starts on Tuesday, 31 March 2015.

Further information on the Literature and War Readalong 2015, including all the book blurbs, can be found here.

Lisa Moore: February (2010)

February

In 1982, the oil rig Ocean Ranger sinks off the coast of Newfoundland during a Valentine’s night storm. Helen O’Mara, pregnant with her fourth child, receives a call telling her that her husband, Cal, has drowned.

A quarter of a century later, Helen is woken by another phone call. It is her wayward son, John, calling from another time zone to tell her that he has made a girl pregnant and he wants Helen to decide what to do. As John grapples with what it might mean to be a father, Helen realises that she must shake off her decades of mourning in order to help.

With grace and precision and an astonishing ability to render the precise details of her characters’ physical and emotional worlds, Lisa Moore reveals the story that unfurls around those two moments.

Lisa Moore is an acclaimed Canadian author whose books are regularly nominated for awards and prizes. She won the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for her novel Alligator. Her novel February was longlisted for the Man Booker in 2010. I discovered her when I was looking for authors for The Canadian Book Challenge 6. For those who are interested – Challenge 7 will start in July 2013.

February starts in 2008. Helen receives a phone call from her son John, telling her, he will be a father. John has always been the most difficult of her four children and the news fills her with joy and apprehension and triggers a flood of memories.

Helen has been a widow since 1992 when her husband died. He was working on the oil rig Ocean Ranger, which sank off the coast of Newfoundland during a stormy night. All the men died. It took three days until all the families had the certitude that nobody survived. Helen who was pregnant with her fourth child knew immediately that Cal was dead. They had such a strong connection, she felt that he would not return.

Grief holds Helen firmly in its grasp. For more than 20 years, she still belongs to the love of her life but deep down inside she knows she isn’t cut out to stay alone forever. There is a longing, a yearning. She wants to be touched, feel another person’s presence. At the time of the phone call, Helen has her house redecorated and falls in love with the man in charge of the redecoration.

The book jumps back and forth in time. A scene set in 2008 follows an episode from 1982; the next will take place in 2006 and the book will then move back to 1992 and finally return to 2008. The chapters indicate the year, it’s easy to follow but at first I didn’t understand why she chose this approach until I realized how much sense it made. Imagine you arrive at a crucial point in your life and look back on the years before that moment. I don’t think anyone would do this in a chronological order. We remember this and that, bits from that year, others from another year. That’s how February is constructed. Helen is finally ready to let go of her grief and these intense new feelings bring back the past with a new acuteness.

This is the kind of thing Helen remembers, bits of afternoon that sharpen in focus until they are too bright. Just moments. Tatters. How the kids climbed on Cal. Flung themselves. How they clambered over him. He tickled them. Gave them horseback rides. Told stories. He did the airplane. Lying on his back, his legs in the air, their little rib cages resting on his grey wool socks. Soaring.

February is a quiet, introspective book. Moore captures feelings masterfully and her style mirrors their complexity and depth. Her descriptions of love, loss, grief and hope are intense and powerful, entirely free of kitsch. Helen’s sadness is palpable, her loneliness can be felt.

February tells the story of a woman whose emotional life has come to a standstill. The man she lost was the love of her life and the relationship they shared was strong and deep. It was physical and emotional. There is incredible pain to imagine how he died, sinking into the icy cold water, with no hope to be rescued. Imagining this takes its toll. It’s as if she feels she will betray him, if she lets go of his memory.

When Helen reawakens to her needs, she feels like a young girl inside of the body of and elderly woman. She’s 58 and shocked to find out that she isn’t considered to be attractive anymore. I liked the way Moore showed this, the scenes she chose to illustrate how invisible older women become in our society which only values women who are young and beautiful. Moore shows this with so much compassion, it’s touching and painful at the same time. Here’s Helen after a date with an online acquaintance she’s been writing to daily for three months has gone an unexpected way

‘Heathcliff’ had come and looked at her and didn’t find her attractive. It was so far outside the scope of what she knew to be decent human behaviour that she could not fathom it, though some part of her also knew it exactly. She went to the bathroom and got down on her knees in front of the filthy toilet and puked. The floor of the bathroom had slush all over it and the knees of her nylons were soaked; a single stone dug sharply into her knee. What she was vomiting was the belief that getting old didn’t matter. Because it did matter. It mattered a lot and there was no stopping it, and everything inside her heaved out that idea.

Moore’s achievement is to describe the pain and the loss of the beloved man in an understated way and to pair them with the pain of lost youth and possibilities. This could be a depressing book but it’s not, it’s very beautiful because Helen learns that there may not be so many possibilities anymore but there are still some and life can start anew.

I began February last year but had to put it aside because it’s a book that demands attention. It’s best read slowly as it’s very rich and the style is fresh and diverse. It’s a very authentic book that rings true at every moment. It has what you would call a happy ending but it’s not corny as, in a way, it is a narrow escape. There is always the danger of staying alone and lonely, of spending old age abandoned from life and love.

I liked the idea that Lisa Moore chose a true story, the Ocean Ranger Disaster, and based her novel on that tragedy. Just like the Titanic, the Ocean Ranger was said to be unsinkable. Nobody saw the disaster coming. Does that make it worse? Was Helen better off because she knew right away and with an absolute certainty that Cal was gone while others were still hoping for her husbands and sons to return?

This is the second author I have discovered thanks to The Canadian Book Challenge. And, like Mary Lawson, she is an author I want to read more of. She writes beautifully and with a rare authenticity.

Timothy Findley: The Wars (1977) Literature and War Readalong April 2013

The Wars

Is it possible to write about WWI – including the trenches, the incapable high command, shell shock, gas attacks, rats, mud, facial wounds, the immense body count – and still be original and have something profound and thought-provoking to say? Before reading Timothy Findley’s  The Wars I might have said “possibly” but after finishing it, I have to say “definitely”. This novel proves that in the hands of a powerful writer anything can become extraordinary.

The Wars has an episodic structure but still tells a coherent story, exploring what happened one day, during WWI, when young Officer Robert Ross, broke the ranks, committing an act of total insubordination, shot another officer and freed dozens of horses. How did it come to this? The story is told in a circular way, starting with the end, withholding all the vital information, and then moving back to  the beginning, unfolding every step which led to that fatal day.

I said in my intro post that I was worried the book would contain a lot of animal suffering and it did but in an unusual way. The strength of Findley’s work is that he manages to show, just like Coetzee – another defender of animals – that, at the end of the day, animals and humans are equal. Both feel pain; their lives are precious and must be protected. Being alive is nothing short of a miracle.

This first quote is central in the book and illustrates perfectly what kind of person Robert Ross is

In another hole there was a rat that was alive but trapped because of the waterlogged condition of the earth that kept collapsing every time it tried to ascend the walls. Robert struck a match and caught the rat by the tail. It squealed as he lifted it over the edge and set it free. Robert wondered afterwards if setting the rat free had been a favour – but in the moment that he did it he was thinking: here is someone still alive. And the word alive was amazing.

The instances in which animals die at the hand of men who have gone crazy or are saved by compassionate men are numerous. Madness is an important topic in this novel. Not just in the sense of war is madness but because people lose their minds during battle or under attack. And often they take it out on weaker ones. Wounded Germans, prisoners or animals.

Many of the soldiers in the book question the decisions of their superiors

This – to Bates – was the greatest terror of the war: what you didn’t know of the men who told you what to do – where to go and when. What if they were mad – or stupid? What if their fear was greater than yours? Or what of they were brave and crazy – wanting and demanding bravery from you?

Life in the trenches is constant terror, trying to stay sane and attempting to survive.

Robert had only taken eight hours sleep in the last three days. He was living on chocolate bars and tea and generous portions of rum which he took from the supply wagons. His body was completely numb and his mind had shrunken to a small, protective shell in which he hoarded the barest essentials of reason.

The novel is divided in many short chapters which could be read separately but definitely work as a whole. This isn’t a collection of snapshots, it is a novel but this approach of unfolding the story in short chapters, which change point of view, narrative technique, tone and mood, make every part very powerful. Findley is probably one of the most assured writers I’ve read. This could have been difficult to read but most chapters contain strong and expressive scenes. There is far more show than tell in this book, which makes it accessible but also painful. Death, pain, loss and grief are described in a civilian setting and during war, and finally illustrate that love is all that counts. War is mad, inflicting pain is mad and treating people without respect is mad as well.

What came as a surprise were the many funny moments in this book. Rodwell is an officer who saved some injured animals after an attack

“Where did you find the hedgehog?” Robert asked.

“Under a hedge,” said Rodwell.

Everybody laughed.

“I suppose that means you found the bird in the sky,” said Devlin.

“Would that I had, Mister Devlin,” said Rodwell. “No sir – I found him with the hedgehog. They were crouched there side by side when I got them by putting out my hand to secure the toad. We were all there together, you see. It was a popular hedge just at that moment.”

There are many other funny moments. I was glad for those, otherwise the book would have been really dark.

The Wars is populated by likable characters which makes it a painful read. There are not many men or animals who survive in this book. It’s not too gruesome as wounds and pain are not dwelt on but it has many explicit moments which make it an equally beautiful, powerful and painful read.

Other reviews

Anna (Diary of an Eccentric)

Buried in Print

Danielle (A Work in Progress)

The review is also a contribution to The Canadian Book Challenge.

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The Wars was the fourth book in the Literature and War Readalong 2013. The next is the WWII novel All That I Am  by Australian writer Anna Funder . Discussion starts on Friday 31 May, 2013. Further information on the Literature and War Readalong, including the book blurbs can be found here.

Literature and War Readalong April 29 2013: The Wars by Timothy Findley

The Wars

On my intro post to the Canadian Book Challenge John, the host of the challenge, suggested I read Timothy Findley’s The Wars. There are quite a few Canadian WWI novels and this is said to be a Canadian classic.

Tomothy Findley wrote novels, plays, short stories and non-fiction. Many of his novels received prestigious prizes.On the back of my copy it says that he is Canada’s greatest living writer. That was back when the book was printed, in 2001. Findley died in 2002.

I must admit the first sentences make me feel anxious. Horses in WWI novels and movies are hardly ever a cheerful thing.

Here are the first sentences

She was standing in the middle of the railroad tracks. Her head was bowed and her right front hoof was raised as if she rested. Her reins hung down to the ground and her saddle slipped to one side. Behind her, a warehouse filled with medical supplies had just caught fire. Lying beside her there was a dog with its head between his paws and its ears erect and listening.

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The discussion starts on Monday, 29 April 2013.

Further information on the Literature and War Readalong 2013, including all the book blurbs, can be found here.

Mary Lawson: The Other Side of the Bridge (2006)

At the end of my introductory post to the Canadian Book Challenge I asked for recommendations and pburt mentioned how much she liked Mary Lawson’s books. That’s how I decided to read The Other Side of the Bridge.

We cannot experience everything in our life. Especially not the past, nor a way of life which is very different from our own. Luckily one of the many functions of literature is to help us experience other times and places. Reading this novel makes it possible to travel back in time, to a place and a way of life long gone; rural Ontario between 1930 to 196o, a harsh inhospitable place which drives strangers and young people away.

The novel tells two parallel but linked stories and moves back and forth in time. It starts in the 30s with the story of the brothers Arthur and Jake. Arthur is the reliable one. Stocky and solid. He wants to become a farmer just like his father. Jake who is much younger, is the good-looking one, the favourite of his mother. But Jake is also inherently mean. A manipulative bully with a sadistic streak which he manages to hide behind his good looks and alleged charm. Only Arthur seems to know about his brothers true nature. One day, on a bridge, fate strikes and sets in motion a tragedy which cannot be stopped anymore.

The second story line starts in the 50s and is told from the point of view of young Ian, the son of the local doctor. Because he is secretly in love with Laura, Arthur’s beautiful wife, he offers to help Arthur every Sunday on the farm.

The blurb states that the novel bears a resemblance to 19th century novels of provincial life. That’s not a bad comparison. But more than that it also reminded me of Greek myths in which you can see the doomed heroes move towards their destruction. The worst thing in the myth of Oedipus for example isn’t so much that he sleeps with his mother and kills his father – although that is certainly very bad – but that his father thought he could prevent this tragedy which had been predicted and through this very attempt at preventing it, he finally provokes it. While The Other Side of the Bride is no story of incest, it has a similar dynamic as Oedipus’ story. There will be a tragedy. We know it.  And no matter how much the people try to prevent it, it will happen anyway. But other than in greek myths, and that’s where Mary Lawson meets Ian McEwan, there is atonement too.

Everything that I said so far has more to do with the plot. The story tells a tragedy and how it happens but that is just one layer of the book and not even the one I liked best as I found it a bit too predictable. What I really liked about this book is the writing which is amazingly beautiful and contains many passages like this one:

It was September, the worst time of the year as far as Arthur was concerned – endless months of school ahead, cooped up in one stuffy schoolroom at a too-small desk, while outside the maple flamed red and gold and the air was clear and pure as spring water. Inside was the leaden boredom, outside was the sharp tang of wood smoke and the urgency of shortening days. You could smell the winter coming. You could see it in the transparency of the light and hear it in the harsh warning cries of the geese as they passed overhead. Most of all you could feel it. During the day the sun was still hot but as soon as it dipped down behind the trees the warmth dropped out of the air like a stone.

Somewhat later in the book there is this passage in which Ian and his friend Peter sit together

They sat on in silence, or almost silence; if you listened closely you could just hear a faint thrumming from thousands of wings. Beyond the dragonflies the sun was sinking slowly, casting its rays across the lake, and on the other side, everything, as far as the eye could see, was slowly dissolving into the haze.

Ian thought, If I love to be a hundred years old, I always remember this.

Apart from the central story of a tragedy, The Other Side of the Bridge is an excellent depiction of the Canadian home front during WWII. It shows the way Canada was affected by huge losses, how most of the young men didn’t return and many of those who did were maimed for life. The book would have been a worthy candidate for my readalong.

Through Ian’s story it is also a coming-of age tale and a look at the life of a country doctor in an isolated place like rural Ontario where the winters are so incredibly harsh that most foreigners and many natives flee the place.

I must admit I didn’t connect with the characters and their stories, I didn’t feel I could identify with any of them, but I’m glad I discovered Mary Lawson. Her writing is beautiful and the way the people and the place come to life is astonishing. They emerge from the pages and seem to be walking around before your very eyes. The way she writes about Canada is very nostalgic and at times I was wondering if the writing wasn’t to a large extent fuelled by homesickness as she seems to be living in England by now. I any case I want to read her first novel Crow Lake soon.

This review is my first contribution to the Canadian Book Challenge 6

The Canadian Book Challenge 6

I was hoping to find a Canadian Literature Challenge. These days I’m very interested in literature written in English outside of the UK and the US. The Canadian Book Challenge seemed just the thing I was looking for. I came across the challenge on Gavin’s blog Page 247.

The host is John Mutford from The Book Mine Set. His blog is dedicated to Canadian literature. If you are interested here’s the sign up post with all the details you need to know. In theory the idea is to read 13 books. It sounds like a lot but interpreting what John writes I would say it doesn’t seem as if you must reach that number. Aim for it, if you read less, it’s not the end of the world, if you read more, all the better.

I have a lot of Canadian literature on my book piles and have read quite a few authors in the past. Authors writing in English and in French. I asked and if you’d like to join, you can choose books written in English or French as long as the author or the topic is Canadian.

I know that I usually do not stick to my book lists but I still keep on making them. Possible choices for this challenge are

A Map of Glass by Jane Urquhart. Urquhart isn’t an easy writer but she is a fascinating one who writes beautifully.

Margaret Atwood’s Lady Oracle. Atwood is another immensely fascinating author I have meant to return to. I loved Cat’s Eye and Surfacing and some of her short stories.

The Birth House by Amy McKay. I haven’t read this author yet but everyone who read this novel was impressed.

The Stone Angel by Margaret Laurence is a book I discovered not too long ago on Danielle’s blog (A Work in Progress). It sounded like another Canadian must-read.

I would like to read the one or the other novel by Nancy Huston and some other Canadian authors writing in French.  Since I recently discovered Louise Penny’s Canadian crime series, I’ll certainly read one of those as well.

Are you joining? Do you have any Canadian literature suggestions?