Monday, 23 March 2015

Thoughts on Margaret Atwood - or, Why I Need To Stop Making Assumptions

You may've heard that the inimitable Margaret Atwood is releasing a new book this year, The Heart Goes Last. It’s about a couple who swap living hand-to-mouth in their car for an idyllic, comfortable life in a closed community with one catch – they must spend every other month in prison. I am so psyched about this because it’s a return to the speculative-fiction (her term, not mine) that I’ve come to love Atwood for, and rather timely too – I’ve recently been experiencing a wobble in my Atwood-worship. I’ve read seven of her books so far, and it’s been a rollercoaster of emotions, with peaks and troughs as I discovered just how varied a landscape her writing covers. 

You see, the first book I ever read by Margaret Atwood was The Year of the Flood: it was a purely blurb-based purchase as I didn’t know who Margaret Atwood was (boo! For shame!). There was no 'Ooh I've heard she's good," or "I liked that other one so maybe I'll like this one," about it - I just bought it because I was browsing, I liked the cover, and it just sounded like a really good story:

“The sun brightens in the east, reddening the blue-grey haze that marks the distant ocean. The vultures roosting on the hydro poles fan out their wings to dry them. The air smells faintly of burning.
 The waterless flood - a manmade plague - has ended the world.
But two young women have survived: Ren, a young dancer trapped where she worked, in an upmarket sex club (the cleanest dirty girls in town); and Toby, who watches and waits from her rooftop garden. Is anyone else out there?”

It was actually really incredible: a time-jumping story about two women struggling to deal with their worlds before and after an apocalypse referred to as The Waterless Flood. It was funny, terrifying, clever, tense and set in a world that was eerily recognisable and full of uncomfortable topics – MoHair sheep, bred purely for wig-making; Chiklits, genetically-engineered chicken-like creatures created only for meat; the Corps, massive private conglomerates in charge of every section of life, from security to prostitution, and the God’s Gardners, a religious faction with emphasis on the protection of the natural world. In The Year of the Flood, Margaret Atwood held up a magic mirror to our society and world, showing what we could become if we’re not careful, and it was exhilarating in its horror.

Then I discovered that The Year of the Flood was not, as previously thought, a standalone novel - it is preceded by Oryx and Crake, which focused on two characters I’d briefly met in The Year of the Flood, and is set mostly before The Waterless Flood. Although I enjoyed it less than what had turned out to be its sequel, I devoured it (I 'll admit that my enjoyment of reading it was lessened by my ill-feelings towards one character – even though he’s meant to be our anti-hero in Oryx and Crake, I strongly disliked him because of his portrayal by another character in The Year of the Flood, and because I met HER first, HE suffered - in the same way you immediately judge people you don't know for mistreating your loved ones). I liked it, even if I didn't love it, because it was clever, and scary, and full of foreboding for our own society and world.

Then I hit a slight stumbling block, The Penelopiad. On paper – and partially in reality – I should’ve LOVED this book: a retelling of The Odyssey, but from the point of view of Penelope, Odysseus’ abandoned wife. I love The Odyssey, and have always, like many people, felt for Penelope: her husband disappears for 20 years, she has no idea if he’s alive or not, and every day young arrogant men turn up at her house to eat her food, drink her wine and sexually harass her into marrying one of them, occasionally screwing her servants to pass the time. It was one of those times when you pick up a book and just think ‘YES, this is everything I was looking for!’ and then… it wasn’t. Not because there was anything wrong with it, but there was something wrong with me - I had expected something like The Year of the Flood or Oryx and Crake, and hadn't got it. I had made assumptions about Margaret Atwood that were wrong, and I didn't like it.

But no need to deal with uncomfortable realisations -at least, not about my reading habits - because the next two Atwoods I read were MaddAddam, the conclusion to the Oryx and Crake trilogy, and The Handmaid’s Tale. MaddAddam took me back to that warped world where I’d first met Atwood, amongst familiar characters and creatures. The novel didn’t quite pan out how I’d expected – I still believe The Year of the Flood was the best of the trilogy – but it was nevertheless a great book, uncomfortable in its razor-sharp wit and on-point criticism of what we’re making the world into. Dystopia ruled the pages, with The Handmaid’s Tale the next in line.

Oh, The Handmaid’s Tale, how do I love thee? Let me count the ways (is it kind of messed up to feel so passionately about such a messed-up book?). Now officially my favourite Atwood book (and edging its red-clad way into my all-time favourites list), just one of the many ways this book is incredible, is that it was published THIRTY YEARS AGO, and it’s still so unhappily relevant. It’s another dystopia – North America ceases to exist, replaced by Gilead, an ultra-religious regime-led country where women are simultaneously revered for their reproductive ability (if they are lucky enough to still retain it) and repressed for being women:

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.”

That sentence TERRIFIES me because it’s so very, very true. If you identify as a woman, this is a huge deal, because what would you choose – freedom to go about your business without a chaperone, to have a job, to spend your own money? Or freedom from harassment on the street, from fear of walking alone in the dark, from media pressure to look a certain way? It’s not necessarily an easy choice, if you’re given it (although if you're asking me, it's ‘Freedom To’).

So Margaret Atwood: Dystopian Queen, Holder of the Magic Mirror, the person who terrifies and fascinates me in equal measure. Except she’s not, because recently, I’ve read two books by her that pull her firmly aside from the future-warning I’ve come to expect from her, that nudge her towards a more humanist view I first glimpsed in The Penelopiad: The Blind Assassin, and Cat’s Eye. Suddenly, my perceptions have been forced to change, and I’m struggling. See, I loved Atwood’s speculative-fiction work, but finding out that’s not necessarily her modus operandi  was a bit of a shock, especially – horror of horrors – I don’t like either of those novels very much.

You mustn’t misunderstand me on this: they’re still very good books, and if I had read them first, who knows? Maybe I would've felt a lot more positively about them: after all, I can't pretend I didn't know they were of a different ilk when I bought them. One, The Blind Assassin, is about two sisters and the secrets that hold them apart, whilst the other, Cat’s Eye, is about the poisonous effect a year’s worth of emotional bullying can wreak on a young girl for the rest of her life. Both interesting subjects - worthy, even - but they didn't fit in with how I had categorised Atwood in my brain. The problem was, in my mind she is a dystopian writer, and it's been difficult to shake that – obviously, as I've now realised, she has a far wider breadth of talent than that, but my first encounter with her work was in a post-apocalyptic world that didn’t seem implausibly different to our world, so even though I might know a book of hers isn’t dystopia, it still doesn’t quite sit right with me. It's an unfair judgement, I know: "This book does not challenge my world-views in respect to the environment, nor does it hold a powerful feminist message, so therefore it's not good enough". I started with The Year of the Flood, which set the bar so high that I’m comparing Atwood's old work constantly against herself, and only The Handmaid’s Tale competes in my narrow view.

 Really, this whole post is less about what Margaret Atwood writes, and more an admission of my own naiveté in regard to someone I would rank amongst my favourite, and most influential, authors. I had Margaret Atwood pegged as a writer of eerily-familiar worlds, not-too-distant futures where our descendants could be realistically reaping the unpleasant rewards of our presence. Instead, I’ve had to realise that I don’t actually know how, or what, she writes, which is not a comfortable experience – much like reading one of her speculative-fiction novels, actually. 

Funnily, this is probably exactly what she wants - for her readers to be not just constantly guessing her work, but questioning their own perceptions of it. And let’s face it, she’s a goddamn queen – she can write whatever the hell she wants and even if it’s not what I wanted from her, I’ll still think she’s a living legend, a woman to aspire to be like. ALL HAIL MARGARET ATWOOD. 

Still, super-psyched for The Heart Goes Last.

Wednesday, 4 March 2015

REVIEW: The Girl in the Red Coat by Kate Hamer

Title: The Girl in the Red Coat
Author: Kate Hamer
First Published: February 2015
Published By: Transworld
Rating: 3/5
Review Summary: It's Promising, But...

Firstly, I’d just like to say how much I was forward to reading this book - it didn’t quite make the Reads for Early ’15 list, but nevertheless I’ve been hotly anticipating it. I’ve really gotten into my crime/thriller novels in the past year, and at first glance, this seemed to fit the bill really well: eight-year old Carmel gets separated from her mother, Beth, at a story-telling festival, when she is approached by a man. He says he’s her estranged grandfather, that her mother has had an accident, and that he’ll look after her now. Except Beth has not had an accident, and the man is not Carmel’s grandfather - so far, so intriguing. The story is told from both Carmel and Beth’s perspective, so we get to see what happens to Carmel after her kidnapping as well as Beth’s search for her daughter. This split-perspective method of story-telling is a very popular device in fiction at the moment – just in 2015 alone I’ve read several books which employ it. In some cases it helps to build tension and create mystery (The Secret Place by Tana French and the similarly-titled The Girl On The Train by Paula Hawkins), whilst in others it’s to give a broader sense of time and space than could usually be managed with a one-character narrative (Rooms by Lauren Oliver and Station Eleven by Emily St. Mandel). In The Girl in the Red Coat, Hamer is trying for both, and it doesn’t quite work out.

The curious thing about this book is, as I was reading it, I was really enjoying it. There’s an unusual reason behind Carmel’s kidnapping, which adds a fantastical twist to the story and separates it from the pack of other missing-child novels, whilst Beth was a sympathetically-written character - a woman suffering an unbearable loss, trying to deal with it as a single woman whilst her ex-husband turns to his new wife for support. It wasn’t until a few hours after I’d finished reading that I realised I wasn’t entirely satisfied – the more I thought about it, the more I thought of the many questions are posed throughout the novel, yet are mostly left unanswered. For example, who was Mercy, and what happened to her? What is the strange power Carmel supposedly possesses? Who is ‘Gramps’ really? How exactly did he find Carmel? And those are just a few: I won’t go into any more that I thought of because they start to get spoiler-y, but I can assure you there are more. I guess you could argue that we can only know as much as our narrators know, but I still don’t see why Beth and Carmel couldn’t have found out at least some of these answers . After all, the principle of Chekhov’s Gun is that, if something is mentioned, it must have significance – so why would Hamer allude to so many questions if she had no intention of answering them? There’s a point at which things stop being mysterious, and start being annoying. This brings me back to my earlier point: that Hamer was trying to do too much, with too broad a spectrum. Her novel is just under 400 pages long, and transcended several years, 2 continents, 2 narratives and about 15 characters all-in, and I just think there wasn’t enough space for it all.  

I don’t want you to think it’s a bad book, though: it’s really not. Like I said, I was enjoying it immensely whilst I was reading it, it was just after I finished that I got frustrated with it. I can’t help but feel that some characters were superfluous, maybe intended for a greater part in earlier drafts but slowly whittled down in later edits, whilst some questions raised could’ve been scrubbed out with no real effect on the full plot. If this turns out to be one of a duology, or a trilogy, then I’ll definitely be back on board (and it’ll certainly make a lot of sense), but at the moment I just feel that Hamer tried to cram too much plot into one novel: I definitely would’ve preferred a slower-burn, longer novel with more detail, than the get-thrills-quick read I think this was aiming for.

I’ll almost certainly read The Girl in the Red Coat again at some point, because it was (despite what you might think from everything I’ve said so far) a clever novel with an original take on a sometimes-tired genre, and there is definitely something about it that makes it worth the reading. And maybe, on a second read, I’ll find that a lot of the questions I had are actually answered in the novel, it’s just because of my shoddy reading that I missed them.  In the meantime though, I can’t help but feel a little bit frustrated that this didn’t live up to everything I felt it promised.