Archive for the 'fiction' Category

On death in literature

December 8, 2019

People die in literature all the time; their deaths are dwelt on for a while, and affect other characters. What occurs rather less often is deliberate and sustained consideration of the subject of death itself, perhaps viewed as too depressing to sustain an entire novel.

You can reflect on death in poetry: John Donne, for instance, does it masterfully in his Holy Sonnet Death Be Not Proud. Donne, Anglican clergyman and Dean of St Paul’s, knows that death is not the end, not ultimately something to be fearful of, because it leads to something far better – heaven and eternal life. He thunders at Death personified, though as a twenty-first century reader I’m not convinced, and I wonder at times how much his seventeenth century readers were.

Eugene Ionesco devotes an entire play to death; of all his works that I’m familiar with, Le Roi Se Meurt, which I had the good fortune to study at A Level (alongside King Lear, which was an interesting comparison) is the play I’ve found most powerful and affecting. The king has come to the end of his life and usefulness and so must die, but first he must accept this, and prepare himself for non-existence. Here, a king is an Everyman figure: powerful he may have been, but he cannot avoid the lot of every human, no matter how lowly. He rages and refuses, attempts to elude and evade; his young Queen supports him in this futility, holding out vain hope, while his other, older Queen must drag him kicking and screaming to face reality. It’s an absurdist drama and gains a great deal of its power from this, with the near-Brechtian alienation effect sharpening the focus on one man and his coming to terms with death. The single line (translated) “Everyone is the first person to die” had a profound effect on me at the age of 17, and I’ve never forgotten it: it gets to the core of the question so directly.

Leo Tolstoy’s novella The Death of Ivan Illych is jarring, disturbing: one day Ivan’s life is running normally, the next, he learns he has a fatal illness, which takes its course, and we observe his growing confusion and confusedness in himself as death approaches, as well as the attitudes of family, colleagues and neighbours, whose responses vary from initial concern to eventual boredom, because their lives are continuing normally and they are not (yet) faced with death in such a brutal way. And this is the way we react to knowledge of someone’s approaching end: we may be shocked or upset, and yet are reassured by the knowing that we will survive.

I first read Arthur C Clarke’s The City and the Stars as a teenager, and have come back to it a good number of times; as you might expect, as I’ve grown older, my response to it has changed. I now see how he has attempted to remove death from human experience, not in the manner of the Swiftian Struldbruggs, but through technology: the computer that runs the city of Diaspar (go on, work out the almost-anagram) has perpetuated that city for a thousand million years whilst the rest of Earth has worn out and disappeared. Each citizen has their mental pattern, their brain and memories stored, and is brought back to life every thousand years or so, for another, fresh existence… you die and yet you don’t, being preserved in the computer’s memory banks. I quite like this idea, and could happily while away some hours planning my next existence.

On time…

December 2, 2019

I’ve written about this topic before: it’s one I return to a lot in my thinking, perhaps reflecting the fact that I’m growing older and so have less of it left.

I’ve always been fascinated when staring up at the night sky and the stars, especially in winter. The sense of the vastness of space, the enormous distances to the stars, our lack of knowledge about what and who might be out there, and the unlikelihood of our ever making contact with anyone, all come together to amplify the sense of timelessness or eternity for me: everything is just so big and unfathomable. Science fiction writers have characters and machines travelling across the vastnesses of space so easily; only in Ursula Le Guin’s visions of the worlds of the Ekumen has any writer fully explored the sadness (or the horror) of someone having travelled faster than light, then returning to the world whence they came, where decades or centuries have elapsed, and everyone they knew, parents, loved ones and friends, are long dead… the loneliness of such an existence seems unbearable, and it’s only fiction…

Ancient places on our own planet have a similar effect on me: the vanished world of Rievaulx Abbey in North Yorkshire where I live, where monks prayed, chanted and sang for centuries; the Roman remains in Provence where it’s possible to imagine quite vividly how people lived two thousand years ago. Many years ago, when I lived in East London, I watched as the old railway station at Broad Street was demolished and redeveloped; my eye was caught by a plaque on the wall which said that the vanishing station had been built on the site of the old Bethlehem Hospital (Bedlam in common parlance) which had been on that spot from the twelfth to the nineteenth century, and I wondered what, from our modern world, would have a chance of remaining in the same spot for seven centuries.

It’s things like this that put the pettiness of our existence into focus for me: we are marvellous, complex and sometimes intelligent beings experiencing the joys and sadnesses of our lives which are but an instant in the time of the universe.

The classic book about time is probably the late Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time, a best-seller that featured on so many people’s bookshelves and may well have been the most unread book of all time, so difficult it was to comprehend. I can say that I did, once, read it from cover to cover: what I did not do is understand it. Science, especially physics, actually makes my brain hurt; I tried, and failed.

Somehow the canvas of time came across really effectively for me in Ivan Yefremov’s A For Andromeda, a classic of Soviet science fiction, set over a thousand years in the future, in a world where communism did triumph, succeeding in transforming everyone’s lives. Utopian, certainly, but people need to dream. And in his future world, religion, of course, has vanished into the dustbin of history, is regarded as a quaint piece of the past. And yet, his characters are still capable of being moved by the enormousness of space and the cosmos, experiencing what I can only label powerful spiritual feelings as they look out from our world.

There are writers who can capture the sense of loss over time, bringing to life vanished worlds in their fiction. I experience this particularly in novels set in Eastern Europe, where worlds have literally vanished as a consequence of the upheavals and horrors of the twentieth century. Ernst Wiechert’s The Simple Life is a very powerful example: a German ship’s captain, wearied after the horrors of the Great War, retreats from the world into the dense forests of one-time East Prussia to live a simple life in a hut on an island in a lake, with only a single companion, and finds peace of a sort; others of Wiechert’s novels are set in this place which vanished forever in 1945. A number of Günter Grass’ novels are set in the Free City of Danzig, another world which disappeared at the same time. Perhaps the saddest moment in The Tin Drum is the suicide of the Jewish toyshop owner as the Nazis tighten their grip on that city: there is no hope, and his is another world gone forever. Lastly I’ll mention Walter Kempowski, whose works are now appearing in English translation; he again pictures the disappearance of that small area of Eastern Europe.

Our existences are transient; we cannot understand the cosmic scale of time and place – we are too little for that. Olaf Stapledon, in Last and First Men, makes an astonishing effort to take human history several billion years into the future. It’s a noble attempt which cannot succeed, hard to read, painful in its reminders of our pettiness. Maybe that’s why most writers stay away from such themes…

Corn in Egypt…

November 17, 2019

For some unfathomable reason, you wait ages for something decent to watch on TV – no, I’m not a streamer, except for catch-up TV – and then two all-time favourites come along at once. For me this has happened recently with the arrival on the BBC of The Name of the Rose and His Dark Materials. Neither has finished yet, so immediate reactions only for the moment, and more detail later.

The European co-production of Umberto Eco’s best-selling novel The Name of the Rose is definitely over-the-top. It’s one of my top novels of all time for its combination of detective story with astonishing erudition and philosophy, and so I have very high expectations. I was initially shocked when the film of the book, with Sean Connery in the lead role, first came out, but grew to like it, in spite of its limitations: Connery was extremely effective as William of Baskerville, the settings were stunning and the basic detective plot was well-presented, though obviously in a two-hour film all the philosophical and religious subtlety largely went by the board.

We now get an eight-part series, some six and a half hours. The set of the monastery I’m afraid I find tacky: the appearance from the exterior is of a cheap polystyrene model. The casting is superb, especially of the monks and inquisitors, a combination of unworldly weirdness and the sinister. William of Baskerville is again supremely effective, as he needs to be. More of the complexity of the novel’s plot is retained, there is more of the religious debate of mediaeval times, and the library is particularly well-created, and although I’d have liked less gloom and half-light throughout the production, I can see that this reflects those times well.

My main gripe is with the changes: a whole new plot-stand developed to incorporate romantic and sexual interest, with two comely females roaming the landscape and one of then entwining Adso, William’s novice, at far too great a length. Partly this is also to develop the background of the heretical uprisings of those times and add a bit more blood and guts, but the producers have taken liberties with Eco’s briefer, more subtle and more sordid presentation of the temptations of the flesh. Equally, I have no recollection of a dubious past for Adso and his potential to be a spy from the original novel. I had been tempted to give up after the first couple of episodes but didn’t, after it seemed to be getting into its stride, and will see it through to the end.

The long-awaited series of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials has begun very well for me, apart from the surfeit of generic sludgy mood-music, which seems to be the current fashion with TV producers. The original film of the first novel, with its clunky American title, was reasonable but eminently forgettable (I’ve actually managed to lose my copy of the DVD). Here we are instantly transported into the parallel universe, and rapidly encounter the several strands of the plot, although the fiendish Mrs Coulter is saved for the second half of the first episode. The setting is utterly convincing and the daemons are really done very well. I admired the way, too, that the multiracial and multicultural casting seemed so natural, and was momentarily taken aback not to have realised this potential when reading and listening to the original novels.

Lyra is really good: there’s the naturalness of a child on the verge of adolescence that I imagined might be very hard for an actor to capture. Lord Asriel was much more swashbuckling than the novel had suggested to me, and that also worked very well.

I’m not yet sure about the pace of the production, having only seen the first episode, which was very hectic, fast-moving, action-packed as a way to get the series off to a good start; my recollection of the novel was of a rather slower world than our own, but I recognise that all sorts of things shape our initial impressions of texts, which, once grounded, are hard to shake off. I’m certainly looking forward to the rest. One doubt I have, and which I can’t pronounce on, not being a child, is how accessible this production will be to children or adolescents: I think one of Pullman’s greatest achievements with the novels was his appeal to both younger and older readers…

Charlotte Perkins Gilman: Herland

October 28, 2019

912W443LLKL._AC_UY218_ML3_   Here’s a book I haven’t read for nearly forty years, since I worked on my thesis. Written in 1915, Gilman’s novel presents a socialist, feminist and (involuntarily) separatist utopia, a product of the early twentieth century wave of feminism, and rediscovered by the second, in the 1970s. It’s set up as a three-man expedition who have heard rumours of a dangerous women’s world, so they have to go there, of course. It turns out to be somewhere in an Amazon-type region, on a lofty basalt plateau cut off from the surrounding jungle, so suspiciously like the setting for Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World.

It develops along the usual utopian lines: the visitors from outside discover a well-ordered land of peace and plenty (though a good number of fairly traditional feminine traits still remain there), and they (the men) are initially imprisoned by the women, cannot believe there can be no men, quickly reveal themselves to be rather silly in their attitudes, and have to learn to understand this new world in which they find themselves.

They learn the language and then there is the usual exposition, complicated by the naturally assumed superiority of men from our world and that particular time period. There have been no males of the human species in Herland for two thousand years; parthenogenesis spontaneously developed; there is a cult of maternity which has become their religion, and, the men are told, because there was no outlet for it, sex and sexuality were sublimated, suppressed and quickly vanished from the human experience. The feminists of the 1970s who produced rather different separatist utopias will have found this last development unsatisfactory; the concept of lesbian sexuality is not even hinted at here.

As the men learn – or not – we do come to feel, though it’s by comparison with our own society, that there’s a bit of a feel of the ant-hill or beehive to the world of Herland, happy and healthy though its citizens are, and the exposition ultimately becomes rather tiresome and tedious, just as in many other utopian novels.

I found myself wondering how convincing Gilman’s male characters were; they are types rather than personalities, and perhaps do represent attitudes from a century ago. The women of Herland are aware of the problem of stasis, which must be present in any utopian world, and are debating whether they want to re-establish a two-gender society, now that they have been presented with the potential and opportunity. Romances are developed (rather woodenly) between the three men and three women, marriages contrived (1915, remember!) and the awkward problem of sex and sexual desire rears its head, for the women are basically both uncomprehending and shocked when they encounter it…

As utopias go, it’s an interesting one, asking more questions than it answers, really, and casting a shadow on the world as we know it, which must necessarily seem dark and defective by comparison. Gilman raised the broader question of the differences between male and female attitudes and approaches to many aspects of life, living and society, and foreshadowed much more complex and challenging novels of the 1970s and 1980s where such issues are brought into play much more forcefully – thinking of the novels of Suzy McKee Charnas, for instance.

Worth a read if you happen to come across a copy… didactic rather than entertaining, and Gilman sets herself up for a sequel, which I have not taken the trouble to track down.

ed Niall Ferguson: Virtual History

October 26, 2019

41w7zIAhyvL._AC_UY218_ML3_   As a lifelong reader of SF, I’ve always enjoyed what I’ve known as alternative futures, although some now call them counterfactuals: works where writers imagine what the world would be like if things had gone differently at some point in the past. I suppose the current classic example is Philip Dick’s The Man in the High Castle, in which the Axis powers were victorious in the Second World War, but there are numerous other examples. A couple of my favourites are Ward Moore’s Bring the Jubilee, in which the Confederacy won the American Civil War, and Katharine Burdekin’s Swastika Night, a dark tale set after seven centuries of Nazi power in Europe.

So I came back hopefully to this book which I last read twenty yers ago, only to be seriously disappointed. Niall Ferguson is a historian, albeit one with a far too right-wing take on things for me, and he provides a wide-ranging introductory essay to the subject, offering a taxonomy of counterfactual history, rubbishing Marx along the way, of course. Ultimately I found it impenetrable stuff, with its – no doubt simplified for the general reader – theories of history, and probably of no real interest to anyone except academic historians. In a paperback aimed at the general reader, it was incredibly self-indulgent.

None of the following chapters is fiction. Various historians tackle various moments which they have deemed crucial in history and survey the evidence and reflect on how things might have gone differently and what the consequences might have been. I found that the further they went back into the past the less relevant or interesting they were, so alternative outcomes to the English Civil War or the American revolution or the history of Ireland and Home Rule were tiresome. When they got on to the First and Second World Wars they were more interesting, but I did find myself wondering what historians would make of such musings.

The chapter on what the world might have been like if the Soviet Union had not collapsed was silly, because it was written far too close to the actual events, and the canter through an alternative past three centuries as an afterword failed because it was too telescoped.

I found myself thinking about how fiction does all of this so differently: history has happened, so re-imagining it is a futile exercise in many ways, whereas the fictional imagining of how it might actually have been to live in such alternate universes is creative and entertaining, as well as having the power to make readers think. Rather than being blinded by a snowstorm of hypothetical details in which historians have to locate names we know in order to remain anchored in their subject, we follow real people and daily lives and relationships in those altered worlds. Life in a world that has been under Nazi rule for centuries is grim, yet people have to live, and they still have minds and imagination, still think and act and desire. To hear in passing in that novel that there was once a race called the Jews, and then for the speaker to move on to something else straight away, has a chill-factor that no historian can generate… How Americans live their daily lives in a California occupied by the Japanese is an interesting, entertaining and thought-provoking act of the imagination.

The most interesting thing in this entire book was Dostoevsky’s comment on Brexit:

‘A man can wish upon himself, in full awareness, something harmful, stupid and even completely idiotic… in order to establish his right to wish for the most idiotic things.’

Philip Pullman: The Secret Commonwealth

October 7, 2019

91hoRkijvXL._AC_UY218_ML3_   I am trying to avoid spoilers in this post, as it’s such early days…

Well, the two years’ wait for this, the second volume of the second Philip Pullman trilogy, has been worth it. And I assume there will be another couple of years to wait for the final volume: this one breaks off in medias res, ‘to be concluded’… Here are some of my initial reactions.

The broader picture begins to emerge with this second book. The first trilogy, His Dark Materials, wasn’t quite for children, but was centred on children approaching adulthood as central characters. The plot and the narrative style was appealing to a younger and an adult audience, with a huge canvas of different worlds and varied plot-lines; it seemed to be almost leading younger readers towards adult themes and ideas, centred on the power of religion and the difference between innocence and experience.

Readers passionate about that series will have hoped for more of Lyra and Will, and the many worlds. La Belle Sauvage, the first in the second series, was a curious bridge, in a way, taking us back ten years in time to Lyra and her importance even as a baby in the grand scheme of things, and as the Will-Lyra story was ten years in the future, not a word of it in that book. Here, in The Secret Commonwealth, we leap forward to ten years after the events of His Dark Materials, but remain firmly anchored in Lyra’s alternate universe. And eventually, various characters from La Belle Sauvage re-emerge and take their places in the story. Mrs Coulter is missing, but her brother is a key character in the plottings of the Magisterium…

And we are now most definitely not in younger readers’ territory: Lyra’s adult world is much darker, and the plot and events of this novel are much darker, even if we found the idea of the research station at Bolvangar separating children from their daemons quite spine-chilling. Part of me felt that I was losing out with the absence of the different universes, but I’ve accepted that Pullman is doing something different here, in this more adult alternate world, which is much more ‘real’ and less fantastical. Lyra is now a grown-up, in her world: it’s a different world from that of her childhood.

In this world the tentacles of the Magisterium are extending in every direction as they attempt to prevent what would seem to be the potentially liberating nature of the knowledge of Dust being known, researched, spread. And the semi-underground opposition known as Oakley Street work to thwart the Magisterium and to protect Lyra and others as they seek out knowledge. The Secret Commonwealth feels like a thriller at times, fast-paced and exciting, unputdownable on this first reading…

And yet, the ideas are still very much to the fore: Pullman wants his readers to think about their own world…

Daemon as soul? – personality? – consciousness? In His Dark Materials, children are horrified at the idea one might be separated from one’s daemon. In The Secret Commonwealth, the world of adults, we discover it’s not an unknown thing: people lose their daemons, fall out with them, separate voluntarily, sell them for money. There are even philosophers who would have you believe they do not exist. This is the new strand to this book: Pan and Lyra have fallen out, are estranged and go their separate ways, although seemingly on the same quest. He feels she has lost something, forgotten a key aspect of herself: are we back in the search for the meaning of Dust, the contrast between child and adult, innocence and experience? I think so, on this first reading. And everyone who is separated from their daemon seems minded to assist others like them.

Topical ideas germane to our own world abound: Pullman explores the idea of those in power undermining the nature of truth in order to disorient, confuse and ultimately disempower people, and also the notion that the enemy’s power comes from its absolute certainty of being right. And, as a good writer should be, Pullman provokes our reflection without wandering into being didactic.

I can’t wait for the final volume – but I’ll have to, obviously…

Umberto Eco: Chroniques d’une societé liquide

October 1, 2019

81H7hoBex5L._AC_UY218_SEARCH213888_ML3_   This is the final collection of Umberto Eco’s brief, regular newspaper and magazine columns, and it has had me thinking more widely about the writer and his reputation.

Often his pieces are brief and laconic, frequently they are still relevant years after they were written; sometimes they have dated terribly, and sometimes they come across as the ramblings of an older man who doesn’t fully get the modern world. And certainly, whoever thought all the stuff about Berlusconi ten years later would be of interest to a non-Italian audience wasn’t really thinking very clearly…

Writing like this does come across as an art form which isn’t always successful: Eco is sharp on the current craziness of so many wannabees craving fame and stardom, via reality TV and the web. He’s good on technology in general, clearly demonstrating that almost everything that we use and/or rave about now actually has its origins in the 19th century. He sees our collective sense of the past and the idea of history gradually eroding, vanishing. And his musings on information overload and the almost impossibility of verifying and trusting any of it are even more relevant now, several years after his death. At the same time, while he’s fully cognisant of the astonishing speed of technological change, many of his responses to the internet and electronic communication are already outdated and surpassed. He’s also very interesting on our contemporary fear of silence.

It is journalism, which does date: the old adage about yesterday’s newspaper being only good for lighting fires or wrapping fish and chips in is still valid. When Eco casts his net wider, and when he’s reflective rather than just ranting (although very entertainingly), he is at his most provocative. Where are all the women philosophers? What do we mean by freedom of speech? At these times his columns show an awareness of the complexity of society. Only monotheisms seek to conquer others and impose their faith, and of the three, Judaism has never sought to do that. I’d never looked at religion quite like that.

Eco was a polymath, and someone whose writings I’ve admired greatly and for a long time. But I found myself briefly thinking about his reputation, and how long people may continue reading his works. A few of the essays may survive, the serious criticism and philosophy perhaps. To me, he remains pre-eminently a novelist, and a mediaevalist, which is why I think that only two of his novels will continue to be read. I did try re-reading The Island of the Day Before, and it was a chore; I haven’t attempted Foucault’s Pendulum again, and I don’t know that I will bother with any of the others, except Baudolino and The Name of the Rose, which I still believe are superb.

Dino Buzzati: The Tartar Steppe

September 22, 2019

81wJPxZyoYL._AC_UY218_ML3_   I only very recently came across a reference to this novel, and had to read it; I think I can honestly say it’s the most depressing and pessimistic novel I’ve ever read. It was worth reading, but be warned: you will be made fully to feel the utter pointlessness, meaninglessness and futility of human existence…

Initially, it struck me as Kafkaesque. Then existential angst shades rapidly into the idea of one’s life inevitably and irretrievably slipping away, devoid of purpose: vanity of vanities, all is vanity, says the preacher. Interestingly, this novel is much better known in France than Britain.

A young, newly trained officer is posted to a fort in the desert, at the edge of nowhere, where nothing ever happens. Pointless routine abounds, and it’s impossible to get away. Is our anti-hero tricked into staying there? Yes, by his superiors as well as his so-called friends, but he also tricks himself into staying, for it’s quiet, easy and he doesn’t have to think about anything… he stays in the rut, imagining that something will happen eventually, something exciting, some action that will bring meaning and significance to his existence. Except it doesn’t. There are false alarms, signs of ‘the enemy’ in the distance. Then the enemy spends fifteen years building a road to the fort, and then disappears.

Finally the prospect of real action arrives, and our hero is too old, too ill, and his brain too addled for him to be of any use: he will be medically evacuated before anything happens… which we don’t hear anything about, of course. The real enemy is death.

We imagine that we are in control of our own destinies (ha, ha). It doesn’t quite feel like Kafka, trapped by a senseless bureaucracy, though perhaps the end result is the same: it’s a twentieth-century, non-religious response to the existential question. The book is frightening, in the sense that, I imagine if one read it as a young person, you’d fear getting stuck like the protagonist; reading it as an older reader you fear that you have been trapped like him. Habit is comforting, things familiar are secure and living adventurously is hard, so let’s go with those easier options.

And you cannot go back: the world has moved on and left you behind; there is only distance and disappointment back there, so why bother? More suicidal than a Leonard Cohen song. There is the inevitability and terror of ageing, imperceptibly, and this awareness is even more chilling for the reader who can see this happening to the anti-hero, while he is only dimly and slightly uncomfortably aware. And eventually we begin to move into absurdist territory when history begins to repeat itself a generation later, like the circularity of an early Ionesco play. Another new officer arrives, to be greeted by our greying protagonist.

He dies, forgotten and unloved, in an inn in the middle of nowhere, unwanted and unmourned. Reader, it is a good novel, but read it at you peril.

Margaret Atwood: The Testimonies

September 16, 2019

71KFmh0gnCL._AC_UY218_ML1_   This was a binge-read, because at first reading the plot is what one is mainly interested in; I shall be re-reading the novel more slowly sometime soon and may come up with different and more considered responses. I hadn’t expected a sequel to a novel I’ve read and taught more times than I can remember, and was keen to see what Atwood would do with her ideas. (Warning: this post probably contains spoilers!)

The Historical Notes at the end of The Handmaid’s Tale tell us that Gilead is no longer in existence, and offers various ways in which the story might be continued. As I read my way through The Testimonies, I became aware of a deliberate choice: the previous book had been the Handmaid’s tale, in the Chaucerian sense if you like, and this sequel does not give a voice to any handmaid; instead it might perhaps have been titled ‘The Aunts’ Tales’, for it is around their world, and completely different perspective, that the plot revolves, and instead of the cold horror of the Handmaid’s isolation in the earlier work, there is a sense of women together being powerful and capable. And coming from The Handmaid’s Tale, this is completely unexpected.

The novel’s structure resembles that of the earlier novel, with perspectives shifting between sections, and fairly quickly we are with Aunt Lydia, who is apparently writing a secret journal preserving information about Gilead for the future. The cynical tone of the narrator as she writes suggests that all is not quite what it seemed. Along with her perspective, there is that of other Aunts, as well as those of several young girls being groomed for their future roles in Gileadean society, and it transpires that one of the ways to avoid becoming a Wife is to get yourself taken in to become a Pearl Girl, a trainee Aunt. Eventually there are two stories developing: Aunt Lydia’s and Baby Nicole’s (and it turns out that she may have been one of the Handmaid’s babies smuggled to Canada in the earlier novel).

In a similar way to how there is almost some sympathy elicited for the Commander at certain moments in The Handmaid’s Tale, we are initially shocked by feeling sympathetic towards Aunt Lydia; then we are possibly heartened to learn that she seems to be playing an incredibly dangerous double game, which is rendered plausible by rather more backstory to Gilead than we had in the earlier novel.

It becomes a compulsive and gripping read because we know the previous book and are connected to some of the characters again; by the middle it feels almost like a thriller, quite conventional in a way, and this jarred for me as I recalled the horrors of The Handmaid’s Tale. The Testimonies is a more conventional novel, less inventive and experimental, less bleak than the earlier novel, although there are some echoes I noticed: the Bible is still altered to suit the purposes of the regime, there is another bog Latin phrase to play with, and occasionally there is some of the playfulness with language that was so clever in the earlier novel. And there is still the meaningless war going on, 1984-style.

As I approached the end, I was realising just how good the novel is, building on what The Handmaid’s Tale gave us more than thirty-five years ago: the backstory of the transformation of the US into Gilead is much more detailed, convincing and scarily possible in the changed times we’re living in now. The picture of Aunt Lydia, which initially seemed a deus ex machina, is more believable when we look at the two novels side-by-side: the Handmaid was utterly isolated and powerless, and the Handmaids in The Testimonies still are. We do not fully understand the world of the Aunts at the very beginning of Gilead; later on their potential becomes clearer. Atwood offers hope in what she calls women’s silent power, that of finding things out, and it is that accumulated knowledge that Aunt Lydia seeks to use…

Atwood’s power and craft shine through, I think. It’s a satisfying enough sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale – which didn’t need one, but there are always those who don’t like open endings, who want to know what happened next, as if the characters and situations were actually real – and there is genuine hope in the idea that even in a society like Gilead, you cannot suppress the minds and thoughts and ideas of everyone. And no, I really didn’t expect The Testimonies to end with another Historical Notes…

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