Anchor Books, Author, Book review, dystopian, Fiction, Margaret Atwood, Publisher, Setting, USA

‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ by Margaret Atwood

The Handmaids Tale

Fiction – paperback; Anchor Books; 311 pages; 1998.

We are two-legged wombs, that’s all: sacred vessels, ambulatory chalices.

First published in 1986, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale is going through a revival right now thanks mainly to the Hulu TV production, which screened in the US earlier this year and is currently being shown on Channel 4 here in the UK.

My edition, by Anchor Books, has been sitting on my shelf unread ever since picking it up in a charity shop more than a decade ago. I decided it would be a good idea to read it before I started watching the 10-part TV series, so I packed it in my suitcase on a recent trip to the Greek island of Rhodes and devoured it one (unseasonably) rainy day.

A classic feminist novel

What’s left to say about this classic that hasn’t already been said? Most of you will know it’s a dystopian novel where women are seen solely as reproductive chattels, that they live in a strictly organised patriarchal society, but are governed by other women, known as Aunts, and that they have no rights: they cannot earn money, wear make-up, listen to music or read books.

And you will also know that women must wear a strict uniform influenced by old school Roman Catholic nuns, puritanical Christians and Islamic abayas. And that the handmaids are assigned to Commanders, wealthy men who are married to infertile women, for the sole purpose of bearing them children.

But in case you haven’t read the book, nor seen the TV series, let me elaborate further.

First person narrator

The story is narrated in the first person by Offred (not her real name) in a dry, almost clinical manner:

I am thirty-three years old. I have brown hair. I stand five seven without shoes. I have trouble remembering what I used to look like. I have viable ovaries. I have one more chance.

There’s a bittersweet pathos to her voice because she’s old enough to remember a time before these misogynistic laws came in and how things got so horribly turned on their head in what seems like the blink of an eye.

It was after the catastrophe, when they shot the president and machine-gunned the Congress and the army declared a state of emergency. They blamed it on Islamic fanatics, at the time.
Keep calm, they said on television. Everything is under control.
I was stunned. Everyone was, I know that. It was hard to believe. The entire government, gone like that. How did they get in, how did it happen?
That’s when they suspended the Constitution. They said it would be temporary. There wasn’t even any rioting in the streets. People stayed home at night, watching television, looking for some direction. There wasn’t even an enemy you could put your finger on.
Look out, said Moira to me, over the phone. Here it comes.
Here what comes? I said.
You wait, she said. They’ve been building up to this. It’s you and me up against the wall, baby. She was quoting an expression of my mother’s, but she wasn’t intending to be funny.

Laws are brought in overnight which forbid women from working, holding a bank account, owning property or being gay. Their lives are now restricted to the merest of functions, but the book posits an interesting theory: that taking away women’s freedom has created a safer, more comfortable, world for them:

We’ve given them [women] more than we’ve taken away, said the Commander. Think of the trouble they had before. Don’t you remember the singles’ bars, the indignity of high school blind dates? The meat market. Don’t you remember the terrible gap between the ones who could get a man easily and the one’s who couldn’t? Some of them were desperate, they starved themselves thin or pumped their breasts full of silicone, had their noses cut off. Think of the human misery.

Uncomfortable reading

I won’t elaborate further on the plot, but let’s just say the book makes for uncomfortable reading (the TV series, or the few episodes that I have viewed so far, are even more uncomfortable), but it’s an impressive, thought-provoking story that poses the question, what if…? What if rules restricting our freedom were brought in overnight? What if everything we take for granted now was taken away from us? What if we — and when I say “we”, I essentially mean white Western women for that is who this book is aimed at — could no longer earn money, be educated, lead independent lives?

There’s no denying that reading this book in the current political climate it’s hard not to see echoes of Trump’s America and the “new normal” in it  — by which I mean it’s a prescient warning about how quickly things can change and new regimes/eras can be ushered in before we’ve had a chance to realise what’s happening.

Interestingly, for a novel that’s written in such a coolly detached voice and with little or no dialogue in it, it is a highly engaging read. I can understand why The Handmaid’s Tale is a modern classic; it’s influenced many books that have followed, not the least Charlotte Wood’s The Natural Way of Things, which makes a nice companion piece to this one.

But even so, I felt slightly too old for this story to have too much of an impact on me: if I’d read it, say, in my twenties, I think its power might have resonated with me more. That said, it’s a terrific, albeit horrific, read.

Anchor Books, Author, Book review, Fiction, Ireland, Jennifer Johnston, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting

‘The Gates’ by Jennifer Johnston


Fiction – paperback; Headline Review; 167 pages; 1998.

First published in 1973, The Gates is Jennifer Johnston‘s second novel, although at just 167 pages in length it feels more like a novella and can be easily consumed in one sitting.

It has a very simple linear narrative in which Minnie McMahon, aged 16, returns home to Ireland, where she is in the care of her elderly uncle, “The Major”, and his forthright housekeeper, Ivy. Having completed her “expensive education” in England it is now time to decide what she wants to do with the rest of her life.

Here, free from the domineering clutches of her English aunt who keeps thinking that “if she tidies me up a bit, and shoves me into the London social whirl, some ghastly chinless wonder will lose his head and marry me,” she unwittingly falls for Kevin, the local lad from a poor family who works for The Major. When Ivy points out that she’s wasting her time and would be better to return to England and a secretarial college, Minnie insists that she is merely following in the footsteps of her late father, a socialist journalist, who married “beneath him” and was ostracized from the family because of it.

When she hatches a plan to help Kevin steal the extravagant gates that belong to the English Italianate-style mansion house in which she grew up you know there’s a disaster in the offing…

In fact the gates are rather symbolic of her family’s slide from Protestant Ascendancy, 150 years earlier, to the current situation in which The Major struggles to pay for the whiskey that keeps him functioning while the estate falls into a state of “peaceful decay”:

Ornate, flamboyant, garlanded with carved flowers, they hung eight feet high between two stone pillars, topped by smiling lions. […] Nowadays the gates hung open, pale with weather and age. The avenue that curved for half a mile under the tunnel of elms, was rutted and overgrown. The tiny pillared gate lodge had not been lived in since 1922, when it had been the scene of one of the Civil War’s minor incidences. Nettles grew up now through the empty windows and in the height of summer foxgloves peered over the walls. No one any longer bobbed and smiled, or passed the time of day as the Major drove  in and out.

This is a book about youthful naivety and misunderstandings between people. But it also explores the uncertain role of the Anglo-Irish in the new independent Ireland and how they grappled with changing attitudes to religion, wealth and class.

It is far from being Johnston’s most accomplished work, but it gives glimpses of her future talent and there are some passages in which Minnie talks to the ghosts of the house (a kind of metaphor for her troubled conscience) that are reminiscent of the magic realism in 1998’s Two Moons.

1001 books, Anchor Books, Author, Book review, Canada, crime/thriller, Fiction, historical fiction, literary fiction, Margaret Atwood, Publisher, Setting

‘Alias Grace’ by Margaret Atwood


Fiction – paperback; Anchor Books; 480 pages; 1997.

Did she do it or didn’t she do it? Is she a bloodthirsty murderess, or was she simply in the wrong place at the wrong time?

These are the questions that form the driving force of this remarkable novel by Margaret Atwood, who takes this captivating true story and truly makes it her own.

Set in Canada in the nineteenth century and based on a real life crime, Alias Grace is about a teenage maid, Grace Marks, who is tried for the  brutal murder of her employer, Thomas Kinnear, and his mistress, Nancy Montgomery. She is found guilty and sentenced to death but has this commuted to life imprisonment, while her ‘accomplice’ is hanged.

Grace, a poor immigrant from Northern Ireland who has cut all ties with her family, tells her story to Dr Simon Jordan in a long series of visits he makes to her prison cell. Dr Jordan, who works in the burgeoning field of mental illness, is ‘hired’ by a group of spiritualists who believe Grace is innocent and want to secure her a pardon.

But the good doctor has problems — professional, emotional and moral — of his own, and before long it is difficult to tell who is the supposed crazed criminal and who is not.

Initially I found Alias Grace a little difficult to get into. The chapters are narrated in alternate voices and formats — Grace’s ‘interviews’ with Dr Jordan involve her telling her story from the time she left Northern Ireland to the aftermath of the murders, while Dr Jordan’s story is revealed through letters written to him and by him — which take some time to propel the narrative forward. Once you understand the rhythm of the book, it gently sucks you in and I found it difficult to put down because I was itching to get to the point where Grace would reveal what really happened on that fateful day.

Atwood structures this novel in a very clever way, so that the reader is drip fed information on an almost need-to-know basis. She also manages to successfully get inside two very different heads and tells their individual stories in a convincing way (personally, I preferred Grace’s narrative, although I largely expect she was prone to exaggeration). And her writing is often beautiful. Take this example, one of my favourites, in which Grace is revealing what happened when she flees the scene of the murders:

And I thought, I am riding through the Valley of the Shadow of Death, as it says in the Psalm; and I attempted to fear no evil, but it was very hard, for there was evil in the wagon with me, like a sort of mist. So I tried to think about something else. And I looked up at the sky, which did not have a cloud in it, and was filled with stars; and it seemed so close I could touch it, and so delicate I could put my hand right through it, like a spiderweb spangled with dewdrops.
But then as I looked, a part of it began to wrinkle up, like the skin on scalding milk; but harder and more brittle, and pebbled, like a dark beach, or like black silk crepe; and then the sky was only a thin surface, like paper, and it was being singed away. And behind it was a cold blackness; and it was not Heaven or even Hell that I was looking at, but only emptiness. This was more frightening than anything I could think of, and I prayed silently to God to forgive my sins; but what if there was no God to forgive me? And then I reflected that perhaps it was the outer darkness, with the wailing and gnashing of teeth, where God was not. And as soon as I had this thought, the sky closed over again, like water after you have thrown a stone; and was again smooth and unbroken, and filled with stars.

Without wishing to spoil the ending, I have to say I am still largely undecided as to whether Grace Marks was guilty or not. Whether I missed a key element of the plot or whether this is what Atwood deliberately intended, I do not know. Suffice to say this is an intriguing and sometimes perplexing book, but it’s an entertaining one too, and it’s certainly made me more interested in reading more by this highly acclaimed author.