Tag Archives: margaret atwood

The Testaments

Sequel to “The Handmaid’s Tale”

This book hardly needs an introduction. Everyone has been talking about Margaret Atwood since her prize-winning novel “The Handmaid’s Tale” was made into a television series and commenting at length about the extent to which the story mirrors current events today. The original novel ends rather abruptly, but with the TV series now renewed for a fourth season, it has gone far beyond the ambit of the original novel. So when Margaret Atwood announced that 34 years after the original novel she would be publishing a sequel, there was a huge amount of interest. The interest was compounded when she (somewhat controversially) was awarded the Booker Prize for the new novel jointly with author Bernadine Evaristo. I have a fraught relationship with Margaret Atwood’s writing. Some of her books like “Cat’s Eye” and “The Blind Assassin” I would name among my favourite novels of all time. Others, like “The Heart Goes Last” and “The Robber Bride” left me lukewarm. Buying this eBook left me feeling a bit apprehensive, but with tickets to see her speak in Canberra just next month, I knew I had to read her new book.

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“The Testaments” by Margaret Atwood is a dystopian novel set approximately 15 years after the events of her acclaimed novel “The Handmaid’s Tale”. There are three point of view characters: Lydia, Agnes and Daisy. Lydia is an Aunt: a high-ranking woman governing and implementing laws about women in Gilead, the nation formerly known as the USA. Agnes is an adopted daughter of a Commander in Gilead who escapes an arranged marriage by agreeing to become a Supplicant: a future Aunt. Daisy, also an adopted daughter, lives in Canada. However when her parents are victims of a terrorist attack, Daisy learns her true identity and become essential to Mayday: an underground resistance movement.

“The Handmaid’s Tale” ended on a cliffhanger, and for those readers who were desperate to know what happens next, to Gilead as much as to Offred, this book certainly answers those questions. Atwood is at her strongest in Lydia’s flashbacks to her arrest when the government was overthrown and Gilead was first established. I felt like the scenes where successful, “immoral” women were detained inside the stadium were realistic, compelling and deeply disturbing. I also felt that Atwood was asking the reader an important question: can the means always justify the ends? The idea of Supplicants to be a interesting form of subversion.

However, this is a bit of a tricky book to review. In some ways, we are living in a time of sequels, prequels, retellings and reboots. There seems to be a chronic inability to leave things to the reader’s imagination. I’m not going to go into depth about a related pet peeve of mine: unnecessarily verbose fantasy novels, but it’s a similar problem. The books I’m enjoying the most right now are those that leave me wanting more. Apart from exploring what it means to be a Supplicant, I wasn’t sold on Agnes’ story and Daisy’s story, while certainly the most action-packed, seemed chaotic and the plan to infiltrate Gilead felt flimsy. Maybe ultimately it was a question of scale. In a classic fantasy or science fiction novel, I would happily suspend my disbelief that a nobody becomes a chosen hero who saves the day mostly through luck and timing. For a story that purports to be a realistic alternative future, it was hard to be convinced. Neither Agnes nor Daisy were particularly compelling characters, and I found myself mostly looking forward to Lydia’s chapters hoping for more flashbacks.

I haven’t read Evaristo’s novel, the other winner of the 2019 Booker Prize, but I am a little surprised that this was a joint winner. For fans of the TV series and original novel, this will fill in plenty of gaps and show old characters in new light. However, I think that “The Handmaid’s Tale’ was excellent as a standalone novel and while this sequel is fine, it was not necessary.

 

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The Heart Goes Last

Margaret Atwood is one of my favourite authors, so when she released a new novel 18 months ago I was pretty excited to read it. I bought a copy but somehow it got lost in my to-read pile and she’s since released another book. Finally it made it to the front of the rotation, and I was eager to see if I’d like it as much as I liked books like “The Blind Assassin” or “Cat’s Eye”.

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“The Heart Goes Last” by Margaret Atwood is a dystopian science fiction novel set in a not-too distant future. Married couple Charmaine and Stan are living in their car after losing their home in a financial crash. Unable to get a job where his tech skills apply, Stan’s self esteem is ebbing while Charmaine works for peanuts at a bar to support them. When Charmaine sees an advertisement for a social experiment that claims to eradicate poverty, Charmaine convinces a reluctant Stan that this is the answer to their problems. Despite his reservations, Stan agrees to sign his life away to a utopian promise where in exchange for one month of paradise, participants spend one month in prison.

I just didn’t feel this book. I wanted to like it, but I could not get myself immersed. Stan and Charmaine just feel like the archetypes of the middle-class, straight white heterosexual couple. They start out unremarkable and they stay unremarkable. The premise is interesting, but Consilience as a concept felt a bit unfinished and under-researched and as a consequence lacked credibility. Maybe this is because the setting is too close to now, and it’s easier to suspend disbelief when the society described is far from our own. The characters on the inside all have a bit of a cardboard cut out feel and as Stan embarks on his mission, it’s just scene after scene of characters that don’t appear to have any distinct personality from one another. I felt like the gender segregation part of the book was a missed opportunity, and way too much of the book was dominated by sex and fetishes that were largely disconnected from the main plot. In even the most highly emotional parts of the book, I didn’t feel moved. Even if this is meant to be satire and a critique of where our society is heading, the story just feels way too artificial and ultimately falls flat.

Although Margaret Atwood has succeeded in writing dystopian fiction in the past, I think this book misses the mark.

 

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The Robber Bride

Margaret Atwood’s “The Robber Bride” was the February book for one of my book clubs. I have been a long-time Margaret Atwood fan, and she is an absolutely exquisite writer, so I was super excited to read this one.

“The Robber Bride” follows the lives of three women who become friends after each has a run in with the sassy, sexy and somewhat sinister Zenia. Although they don’t seem to have much in common with one-another apart from these experiences, Tony, Charis and Roz form a lasting friendship together which continues after Zenia’s apparent death. When she turns up in a restaurant while they’re having their monthly catch-up, each of the three women is catapulted back into the past to face the demons they thought they’d put to rest.

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There is a lot going on in this book. It’s a book about power. It’s a book about female relationships. It’s a book about intergenerational trauma. It’s also a book about conflict between men and women.

Nevertheless, this was simply not my favourite Margaret Atwood novel. “The Handmaid’s Tale” was a better feminist novel. “Cat’s Eye” did a much better job capturing the nuance of female friendship. “The Blind Assassin” was a far more sophisticated glimpse into changing times and at executing twisted endings. Zenia was a really problematic antagonist. I think it would have been better to have either committed to the idea that she was somehow supernatural, or done away with the air of mystery altogether and made her more realistic and relatable. I had a lot of trouble stomaching the three women who were slaves to her and slaves to their men. I also had a lot of trouble stomaching all the weak men who were slaves to their own baffling sexualities.

If Zenia had been redefined somehow, I think that this could have been an extremely powerful novel about coping with the aftermath of war. As it was, it seemed to fall a bit flat and was lacking in the cleverness and intricacy that Atwood is so well-known for.

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Oryx and Crake

“Oryx and Crake” by Margaret Atwood is what happens when one of my favourite authors writes a novel on my favourite genre: biopunk. I’ve always been interested in this genre of books, TV and film, but always mentally referred to it as a sort of science fiction based on genetics, but it wasn’t until today that I actually found out that there is a specific name for it. I could wax lyrical about biopunk and list all my favourite stories in this genre, but I’ll save that for if/when anyone asks me (please ask me). Suffice to say, biopunk tends to be speculative fiction or dystopian fiction focusing on a society where genetic engineering not only has been introduced, but has often become rampant and unregulated.

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But anyway, my brother Fletcher and I have been playing a fair bit of book swapsies lately, and after lending him “The Blind Assassin” by Margaret Atwood, he recommended that I try her novel “Oryx and Crake”. When I found myself a copy, the bright green bunny on the front cover was just the radioactive icing on the genetically modified crake…I mean, cake.

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Gru was much more interested in posing with that pesky book once I bribed him with breakfast.

“Oryx and Crake” follows the life, past and present, of a man called Jimmy who refers to himself as Snowman. Snowman appears to live on the fringe of a small community of not-quite people he calls Crakers who treat him with a mixture of reverence and caution. As the story unfolds, the reader begins to understand the circumstances that led to Snowman becoming such an unlikely custodian of the land he finds himself in. This book is followed by two sequels, neither of which I own or have read yet. I am hoping to get a chance to do so this year, somewhere amongst my ever growing to-read list.

Atwood is a master storyteller who is able to expertly grapple with historic, present and future issues. Her characters are at once both complex and imperfect, and you find yourself willing them to succeed and triumph in the face of adversity. It is Snowman’s humanity, his faults, his passions, his strengths, his weaknesses and his failures that make you keep on reading and keep on hoping for him.

Atwood is also fearless when it comes to tackling the darkest aspects of society. Snowman is painted in his youth as complicit degenerate, scouring the internet as a voyeur seeking the most abhorrent displays of people being exploited for entertainment. Only Atwood would be able to make such activities relatable to the average reader. She has a real talent for reaching the dirty reprobate hiding in all of us, taking it out and forcing us to acknowledge it, examine it, and move beyond it. There are no heroes in Atwood’s novels, only humans.

If you haven’t yet had the privilege of reading Margaret Atwood’s works, this is as good a place as any to start.

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