The Handmaid’s Tale – Margaret Atwood

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‘Offred is a Handmaid in the Republic of Gilead. She may leave the home of the Commander and his wife once a day to walk to food markets whose signs are now pictures instead of words because women are no longer allowed to read. She must lie on her back once a month and pray that the Commander makes her pregnant, because in an age of declining births, Offred and the other Handmaids are valued only if their ovaries are viable.’ Goodreads.com

★★★

This is the MOTHER of all dystopian novels – and I’m surprised it took me this long to read, but I’m glad I waited this long somehow.  Written in 1986, it centres around Offred, who has somehow, in a new world under military control, been recruited as a ‘Handmaid’, whose only purpose is to procreate for their ‘Wives’, who for some reason cannot procreate themselves with their husbands (or ‘Commanders’). Although a complete fabrication of Atwood’s mind, the story is less about the why’s and how’s of the new world Offred (not her real name) finds herself in, but the struggles of having to be silent, subservient and find comfort in a world that is ready to turn you in at any moment. The world she lives in acts more as a backdrop to her personal and often heart-wrenching stories. She leaps from one period in her life to another, and the fact that you can sense exactly which point in time Atwood is telling her talefrom, at any time, is testament to what an amazing writer she is.

 

It’s obviously the pioneering dystopian novel, along with 1984 and Fahrenheit 451, but not without differences. Offred is different in that she’s not bold like other dissenting protagonists in dystopians, she’s kind of resigned to her new life in the controlling state she lives in. She is more hesitant to digress away from the new world (unlike the Snowman in Oryx and Crake for example)- and usually adheres to what she’s been assigned to do – procreate and be subservient, and it is only when she is ordered to by her superiors that she will break the rules. In her words there is ‘comfort in ritual’, referring to her mundane tasks as a Handmaid such as walking, shopping, clad in her red robes, and she gets intense pleasure from even tiny acts of subversion, such as hiding a match under her mattress.

However, Offred still retains the qualities that make her relatable to a reader, such as her need to have a meaningful human relationship however taboo it may be, exactly like Winston in 1984. If you think about it, the two novels are extremely similar in the characteristics of their protagonists. I loved Offred so much as a character and one of the few criticisms I have of the book is that it is way too short and it ends way too abruptly. So much more could have been explored in this world and it would have been equally as gripping. Atwood also manages to create the perfect imagined world that is also fairly realistic. This is a book that I feel like I need to read again, and I’ve literally just finished it.

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A Brief History of Seven Killings – Marlon James

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STAR RATING: (★★

BLURB: ‘On December 3, 1976, just before the Jamaican general election and two days before Bob Marley was to play the Smile Jamaica Concert, gunmen stormed his house, machine guns blazing. The attack nearly killed the Reggae superstar, his wife, and his manager, and injured several others. Marley would go on to perform at the free concert on December 5, but he left the country the next day, not to return for two years.’ Goodreads.com

PAGE COUNT: 685 (hardback)

I CAN’T FINISH THIS BOOK. I really really want to. And I feel like I need to apologise to someone because of it. But its like when I pick it up my body has an allergic reaction to it and I just want to throw it across the room. Reading reviews before I started the book, everyone spoke so highly of it, and it just didn’t match up to my expectations. Not to mention it is the WINNER of the 2015 Man Booker Prize. I struggled through with it until page 400 because of this reason – I thought that it had to get better, because this couldn’t be it, and as you all know, I am loyal to the judges of this book prize. But at the end of the day, if you’ve read 2/3rds of a book, and it is still failing to grip you, it’s just not worth it.

Here are the notes I made as I was reading it:

Page 200‘I can appreciate what a complete feat this novel is, I’m just not enjoying it. Remarkable how he can just switch between such different vernacular. I really liked how short chapters are but I think I struggled overall because there isn’t much of a storyline and there is a lot of trains of thought’ < This is when I was feeling positive, that although I wasn’t hooked just yet, I trusted that I would be soon.

Page 300 – ‘I am still yet to be impressed by this book. It’s like walking through a fog filled forest, I struggled so much to keep up with what was happening, mixed in with the sometimes confusing use of patois Jamaican language – I feel completely lost in this gigantic book. Halfway through, and I’m still having dilemmas about whether to stop reading or not.’ < Flagging.

Page 400 I have lost all energy to read this book and it feels like a chore. I have decided to cut my losses and give up. I hate, hate, hate not finishing books, but this just seemed like a waste of my time. 

I think the reason I found this so difficult was because I felt alienated from the subject, as if everyone who had read it had completely understood it and I was alone in my confusion and bewilderment. The topic is difficult enough as it is as someone who has never encountered Jamaican history, and Marlon James clearly has such a handle of everything going on around this period (1970s/80s Jamaica) that he can so swiftly change through vernaculars and subjects and I couldn’t keep up; it was like the story was running away without me. One page he’ll be writing in traditional Jamaican patois as gang leader ‘Papa-Lo’, and one moment he’s writing as ‘Sir Arthur George Jennings’, who is a ghost. (I think). Clever and well-written? Definitely. A struggle? Completely.