The Testaments by Margaret Atwood

I read The Testaments at the beginning of March, when life still felt relatively normal, and I’m glad I did because now that I feel as though I’m living inside the pages of a dystopian novel I’m not sure I would have been in the mood for reading one! I hope everyone is staying safe and coping with this strange and unfamiliar world we’ve found ourselves in. It’s been another stressful week for me – on Monday I started working from home and was just settling into a new routine when I was informed yesterday that I was being placed on furlough, so now I won’t be able to work at all until further notice and will only receive 80% of my salary during that time. Not great, but I’m hoping this at least means the company will be able to stay afloat and I will still have a job to go back to once all of this is over. On the plus side, I’m going to have plenty of time for reading and blogging now – if I could only get out of the slump I’ve been in for the last few weeks!

Anyway, back to The Testaments. I loved The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood’s classic dystopian novel from 1985, but for some reason I didn’t feel any immediate compulsion to read the sequel when it was published last year, not even after it was named joint winner of the Booker Prize. I knew I would get around to reading it eventually, though, and as I’ve mentioned, I finally picked it up earlier this month.

The first thing I will say is that I do think you should read The Handmaid’s Tale before starting The Testaments as otherwise you will be making it difficult for yourself to fully understand what is happening. Even leaving a gap of several years, as I did, made it difficult to get straight back into the story – I should really have found time for a re-read of The Handmaid’s Tale first.

Both books are set in the fictional state of Gilead (formerly the USA), where a patriarchal regime has risen to power and restricted women to a small number of clearly defined roles: Wives – women from higher ranking families who are married off to men known as ‘Commanders’; Handmaids – fertile women tasked with bearing children for Commanders whose Wives are unable to conceive; Marthas – domestic servants; and Aunts – women who have sacrificed the chance of marriage and childbirth and devoted themselves to the running of Gilead. In The Handmaid’s Tale, we saw Gilead through the eyes of Offred, a Handmaid, but The Testaments gives us a different perspective…three different perspectives, in fact.

The first narrator is Aunt Lydia, one of the founding Aunts of Gilead, who has helped to create the rules women must follow in this grim, oppressive society. Lydia’s story unfolds in the form of a secret manuscript describing her work as an Aunt and offering insights into the inner workings of Gilead and the corruption at its heart. The other two testaments are told in the voices of two young women who have led very different lives. One, Agnes, is the adopted child of a Gilead family and has been raised to become the Wife of a Commander. The other, Daisy, has grown up across the border in Canada with all the freedoms and opportunities that have been denied to Agnes.

These three testaments, taken as a whole, give us a much wider view of Gilead than we received from Offred’s rather limited perspective in The Handmaid’s Tale. I found Lydia’s the most interesting, as she has the best understanding of how things work in Gilead, but Agnes’ first-hand account of what it is like to grow up there is valuable too, as is Daisy’s account of how Gilead is viewed by the outside world. What struck me about the latter two narratives is that some (though not all) of the things Daisy sees as wrong and terrible about Gilead are things that Agnes considers right and reasonable. It made me wonder what sort of things any of us could come to accept as normal after years of being conditioned to think a certain way.

I didn’t find this book quite as powerful as The Handmaid’s Tale – and there were some plot developments towards the end that I found a little bit unconvincing. Like its predecessor, though, this is the sort of book that leaves you with a lot to think about.

In a Dark Wood Wandering by Hella S Haasse

“Doesn’t it seem to you that we have, all of us – the King and I and our good friends – wandered off into a forest of the night, filled with wolves and sly foxes? The darkness holds endless danger, we are stranded with no torch to protect us…We are lost in the Forest of Long Awaiting, a wilderness without prospect.”

Hella S Haasse’s In a Dark Wood Wandering was the book chosen for me in the last Classics Club Spin just before Christmas, a result I was very happy with as I’d wanted to read this book for years. The deadline for finishing our Spin books was the end of January, but I knew I would need longer as I could tell when I started reading that this was the sort of book that required concentration and couldn’t be rushed.

First published in Dutch in 1949, an English translation by Lewis C Kaplan appeared in 1989 and although, sadly, I am unable to read the book in its original language, it doesn’t feel as though anything has been lost in translation – certainly not the beauty of the writing.

Set during the Hundred Years War, mainly in France but later in England, the novel begins in 1394 with the birth of a son to Louis, Duke d’Orléans and his wife, Valentina Visconti. Louis’ brother, Charles VI of France, suffers episodes of madness which leave him unfit to rule and Louis, at this time, is one of the most powerful men in France. However, there are others who are also able to wield influence over the king and Louis seems to be locked in never-ending conflict with the royal houses of Burgundy, Bourbon and Berry. It is into this world of power struggles, political intrigue and shifting alliances that little Charles d’Orléans is born.

Charles is still in his teens when his father, Louis, is murdered by Jean of Burgundy and, as the eldest son, the responsibility for the future of the House of Orléans falls on his young shoulders. Charles and his brothers swear to seek revenge against Burgundy, but then comes 1415, the Battle of Agincourt and a French defeat. Charles is captured by the victorious English and taken to England as a prisoner of war, where he will remain for decades. During this time, he occupies himself by writing the poetry for which he will become famous, but he never loses hope that one day France and England will be at peace and that he will be ransomed and allowed to return home.

In a Dark Wood Wandering is an amazing achievement. As readers of my blog will know, I enjoy reading historical fiction of all types, but my favourites tend to be older books like this one as I find that they are often better at immersing the reader in a bygone time without using inappropriately modern slang or projecting modern attitudes onto historical characters. That is certainly true of this book; both Hella S Haasse’s recreation of early 15th century France and her portrayal of the key historical figures of the period feel completely real and believable. This might be a problem for some readers as it means that the women – with the exceptions of Joan of Arc and, at times, Isabeau of Bavaria – are not particularly strong characters and, after the prologue, are kept largely in the background. Having said that, Charles himself is a passive, introspective character, often no more than an observer of things going on around him, a personality much more suited to writing poetry than to leading armies. Not everyone can be a hero or a heroine, after all.

Telling the story from Charles of Orléans’ perspective has its limitations as the parts of the Hundred Years War in which Charles plays a more active part, such as Agincourt, are vividly described while others, particularly events taking place in France during his time of exile, have to be either related to Charles from a distance or seen through the eyes of other characters. One of these is Dunois, Charles’ younger half-brother, known as the Bastard of Orléans; I have to admit, I found him a much more interesting and engaging character than Charles and wished we had seen more of him.

I loved the imagery Haasse uses in her writing; her descriptions of poppies glowing in green fields, sunlight sparkling on clear water and reflections of clouds in the river unfold like medieval tapestries while the idea of being lost en la forêt de longue attente or in ‘the Forest of Long Awaiting’ (a better title for the book in my opinion) is used very effectively throughout the novel. It forms the subject of the poetry Charles writes during his imprisonment in England and is also a metaphor for his state of mind and for the state of the Orléans family and France as a whole. By the time the novel draws to a close, France is beginning to head out of the dark forest of the Middle Ages towards the light of the Renaissance. As for Charles himself, although his life may seem to have been a story of missed opportunities and wasted potential, history tells us that the fortunes of the House of Orléans would soon start to rise again.

Now I want to read more of Hella S Haasse’s novels. Not all of them have been translated into English, but of those that have I particularly like the sound of The Scarlet City, a novel about Rome and the Borgias. Has anyone read that one – or any of her other books?

This is book 15/50 read from my Second Classics Club list.

A Thousand Moons by Sebastian Barry

I usually love Sebastian Barry’s books, but his last one – Days Without End – was the first one I’ve read that I haven’t particularly enjoyed. Ironically, it also seems to be one of his most popular and successful books! When I saw that he had written a sequel, I wasn’t sure whether to read it, but as it promised to tell the story of Winona, the one character from Days Without End who did interest me, I thought I would try it – and I’m pleased to say that I was able to connect with this book in a way that I didn’t with the previous one.

Those of you who have read Days Without End will probably remember that Winona was the Lakota orphan rescued by Thomas McNulty and John Cole. In A Thousand Moons, set in the 1870s, we discover that Winona, now a young woman, is still living with Thomas and John on Lige Magan’s tobacco farm in Tennessee. Despite the love and support she receives from the men who have adopted her and the opportunities she has been given – including a job in a lawyer’s office – Winona is aware that she has still not been fully accepted by the wider community and that most people see her as ‘nothing but an Injun’ whose life is worth less than that of a white person.

Near the beginning of the novel we learn that Winona has been raped and the blame has fallen on Jas Jonski, a young Polish immigrant who swears he loves Winona and wants to marry her. Winona herself has no memory of the incident, something which distresses her as she has no idea whether Jonski is being wrongly accused or not. At around the same time, Tennyson Bouguereau, a former slave living on the farm, is also attacked and violently beaten – and again, it is not clear who the culprits are. The rest of the book, narrated by Winona herself, describes how she slowly uncovers the truth of her own assault and Tennyson’s.

I’m not sure why I liked this book so much more than Days Without End. Both books are beautifully written, as I have come to expect from Sebastian Barry, and obviously they feature some of the same characters and have a similar setting. I think the difference is that the first book, which was narrated by Thomas McNulty, was more of a ‘western’ with a focus on things like life in the army, shooting buffalo and fighting the Sioux. This book, in contrast, is more domestic, concerned with how the characters are getting on with their daily lives in the aftermath of the recent Civil War and how they are coping with the racial tensions left unresolved within their society. That, and the fact that I felt a stronger emotional connection with Winona than I did with Thomas, are the only reasons I can think of for my very different reactions to the two novels.

I also loved all the little insights Winona gives us into her early childhood with the Lakota tribe and what she remembers of their culture, traditions and stories, including her mother’s belief that ‘If you walked far enough, you could find the people still living who had lived in the long ago. A thousand moons all at once.’

Although, unlike many of Sebastian Barry’s books, this one is not set in Ireland, he is an Irish author and I am counting A Thousand Moons towards Cathy at 746 Books’ Reading Ireland Month. I still have three of Barry’s earlier novels to read: A Long Long Way, The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty and Annie Dunne. If you’ve read any of them, which one do you think I should read next?

Thanks to Faber & Faber for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

The Dutch House by Ann Patchett

Before I start to talk about Ann Patchett’s wonderful novel The Dutch House, just a quick note to say that, like many of you, I am feeling very worried and stressed about the current situation in the world. I’m still reading but struggling to find the enthusiasm for writing blog posts at the moment. I do have a stock of reviews already written which I will schedule in over the next few weeks, but if I’m slow to reply to comments or to comment on your blogs in return, I’m not ignoring you – just finding it hard to concentrate and get motivated.

Anyway, back to The Dutch House…I’ve been aware of Ann Patchett’s books for years without ever thinking that I might enjoy them, but this one sounded appealing to me so I thought I would give it a try. I’m glad I did because I loved it – it just shows how wrong you can be about an author!

The Dutch House is the story of brother and sister Danny and Maeve Conroy, and their obsession with the house in Philadelphia in which they grew up. It’s no ordinary house; named for the nationality of the people who built it in the 1920s, the Van Hoebeeks, the Dutch House is an architectural wonder with ornate floors and ceilings and luxurious furnishings. When Cyril Conroy purchases it in the 1940s, he intends it to be a wonderful surprise for his family. However, his wife, Elna, comes to hate the house and everything it represents. For her, it is symbolic of all the inequality in the world – how can it be fair for some people to have so much and others so little? She begins to spend increasingly longer periods of time away from the house, until one day she leaves and doesn’t come back.

Maeve and Danny are devastated by their mother’s sudden and unexplained disappearance, but things quickly become worse when Cyril marries again and his new wife, Andrea, arrives at the Dutch House with her two young daughters. Andrea makes it clear that she has no time for her stepchildren and doesn’t want them in her life so, when Cyril dies a few years later, she throws them out of the Dutch House and leaves them to make their own way in the world.

For the rest of their lives, Danny and Maeve will struggle to move on and let go of the past. They will sit outside the Dutch House, looking through the gates and wondering who lives there now. They will let the events of their childhood influence the career paths they follow and put strain on their future relationships. And they will never forget that Andrea is to blame for all of this.

You could describe this as a book about a house, but I think of it more as a book about people and the connections between them…in particular, the relationship between a brother and a sister. When they find themselves cast out and alone in the world, Danny and Maeve have no one else they can rely on but each other; Maeve, who is seven years older, takes on the role of mother, overseeing Danny’s education and making sacrifices for him, despite struggling with her own health problems. The bond between them is deep and unbreakable and although there are times when it seems to restrict them from doing things they really want to do and times when it gets in the way of their other relationships, I still found it very moving.

The novel is narrated entirely by Danny and as he is only a small child when his mother leaves and still just a teenager when he is forced out of the Dutch House, there’s a sense that some of the information he is giving us may be slightly unreliable. It is only later in life, as he sits in the car outside the house reminiscing with Maeve, that certain things become clear to him and start to make more sense. As the story progresses towards its end the full picture emerges and we begin to wonder ‘what if’? What if, instead of always staying in the car, Danny and Maeve had gone and knocked on the door of the Dutch House one day? What if they had tried to contact Andrea and speak to her as adults – could they have cleared the air and moved on with their lives? What if they had made more effort to find their mother and had asked her why she walked out on them as children? They will never know the answers to these questions, but I’m sure we all have similar thoughts about our own lives – things we could have done differently or not done at all.

I loved this book and will now have to read Ann Patchett’s earlier books, which I had dismissed as not for me. Any recommendations?

Requiem for a Knave by Laura Carlin

When I saw that there was a new novel by Laura Carlin, I wasn’t sure whether to read it. Her first book, The Wicked Cometh, set in Victorian London, had left me with mixed feelings; I liked her writing and I liked the atmosphere she created, but I felt that the plot was too melodramatic and too predictable – too similar to other books I’d read. This one sounded quite different, though, so I decided to give it a try.

Requiem for a Knave is set in the 14th century, a much earlier time period than The Wicked Cometh, and this immediately gives it a different feel. It’s also written in past tense, rather than the present tense of the previous book, which is always a big bonus in my opinion! Our narrator is Alwin of Whittaker who, following the death of his mother, sets off on a pilgrimage to the shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham in search of clues to the identity of his father. Village priest and family friend Father Oswald gives Alwin a letter of introduction to the prioress of Winfeld Priory to enable him to obtain accommodation for the first night of his journey, but along the way he falls in with a band of soldiers who insist on accompanying him. The scenes that follow at the priory leave Alwin traumatised and ashamed and will continue to haunt him for the rest of the novel.

After leaving Winfeld to continue on his journey, Alwin is joined by Father Oswald and several other pilgrims, but as further misfortune befalls the little group, he starts to wonder whether his new companions are as innocent as they appear to be. Deciding to place his trust in fellow pilgrim Rosamund, Alwin shares with her a terrible secret he has carried with him since his childhood and with Rosamund’s help he begins to uncover the truth about his family, his past and who he really is.

First of all, I can say that I thought this book was better than The Wicked Cometh. I have read so many historical novels with a gothic Victorian London setting that they’re all starting to feel very alike, so this book, set in medieval rural England was a refreshing change. The plot also seemed more original, although some of the revelations towards the end of the book – the motives of the villains, for example, and the reasons for some of the bad things that happen to the pilgrims throughout the story – felt too far-fetched and unlikely. As for Alwin’s secret, there were clues from the beginning that made it easy for me to guess, but perhaps the author had intended us to have our suspicions all along; the interest is in waiting to see when other characters will discover the truth and how Alwin will cope with the revelation.

However, I did have a problem with the way the novel handles one of its major themes, which is gender. It can’t be denied that women were not treated equally in medieval society and historical fiction can certainly play a part in highlighting those injustices, but I don’t think it’s realistic to do so by portraying almost every male character as an evil monster who can’t look at a woman without trying to rape her. I can’t really give examples without spoiling the story, but at times I felt I was reading a long lecture on the wickedness of men and I couldn’t really believe that 14th century women would have had discussions about gender issues in quite the same way that we do today. It’s a shame because otherwise the medieval atmosphere is very well done and the writing feels appropriate to the period, avoiding any annoyingly modern language.

On the whole, I did enjoy reading this book but if its central messages had been put across in a more subtle way I think I would have enjoyed it much more.

Thanks to Hodder & Stoughton for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

Becoming Belle by Nuala O’Connor

In Becoming Belle, Nuala O’Connor (a pseudonym of the Irish author Nuala Ní Chonchúir) brings to life a young woman whose picture hangs in the National Portrait Gallery in London but whose name is probably unfamiliar to most of us today. She is Belle Bilton, a star of the Victorian music hall who later became the Countess of Clancarty. O’Connor’s novel tells, in fictional form, the story of Belle’s rise to fame, her marriage and the scandalous court case that follows.

Born Isabel Maud Penrice Bilton, the eldest daughter of an artillery sergeant, Belle grows up in an army garrison watching her mother, an entertainer, perform for the troops. It is while taking her mother’s place on stage one night that Belle decides she also wants a career in entertainment, so at the age of nineteen she leaves the military life behind and heads for London to make her dream come true. Belle’s singing and dancing quickly causes a sensation and when she is joined by one of her younger sisters, Flo, the two form a double act that becomes the star attraction of the London theatres.

Following a performance one day in 1889, Belle meets and falls in love with William, the young Viscount Dunlo, son and heir to the Earl of Clancarty. It’s not long before she and William are standing in the Registrar’s Office in Hampstead taking their marriage vows and looking forward to spending the rest of their lives together. At twenty years old, however, William is still firmly under the thumb of his father, the Earl, who is furious when he hears of the secret wedding and makes it clear that he will do whatever it takes to separate his son from Belle.

Some books grab you from the first page, while others take much longer to settle into – and for me, Becoming Belle was one of the latter rather than the former. The account of Belle’s early life and first days on the stage didn’t interest me much and I came close to abandoning the book after a few chapters. Belle herself seemed as though she would be difficult to like – an ambitious social climber like Becky Sharp from Vanity Fair, but with little depth or substance to her character – and the focus on her sexual encounters also put me off. I’m glad I continued, though, because I thought the second half of the book, after Belle meets William, was much more compelling than the first.

I don’t want to say too much about how the story of Belle’s marriage plays out, but it involves a court case which draws in most of the characters we have met in the novel and which was widely reported in the media of the time. I managed to resist looking up the facts about the real Belle Bilton, so I didn’t know what the outcome of the court case would be, but by that stage of the book I was fully invested in Belle’s story and hoped there would be a happy ending for her. I still didn’t like her very much, but I had more sympathy for her than I’d had earlier in the novel because she’d had so much to contend with during her short time in London. However, I couldn’t really see her as a feminist heroine ‘ahead of her time’ as she is described in the book’s blurb; although I admired her for trying to get what she wanted out of life, for working hard at her chosen career and securing financial independence, she seemed too willing to give it all up to become Countess of Clancarty and too ready to forgive William for the appalling way he treats her at times.

I have no idea what the real William, Viscount Dunlo was supposed to be like, but based on the way he is portrayed in this book, I found him immature and pathetic, declaring his love for Belle while at the same time allowing his father to tear them apart. Luckily, there were plenty of other, stronger characters in the novel whom I found more appealing to read about: for example, Belle’s close friend Isidor Wertheimer, the antiques dealer, and her sister, Flo, both of whom support her through her various ordeals.

Despite struggling with the first half of this book, I ended up really enjoying Becoming Belle – although I was disappointed that we didn’t get to see more of her time at Garbally Court, the Clancarty estate in Ireland. Anyway, I went from thinking Nuala O’Connor was not an author for me to wanting to read more of her books. Miss Emily, her novel about the poet Emily Dickinson sounds like an interesting one.

Although I read this book in February, I have waited until now to post my review because this month Cathy at 746 Books is hosting her annual Reading Ireland event. I hope to have time to write about another book by an Irish author before the end of March.

The Great Matter Monologues by Thomas Crockett

So many novels have been written dealing with ‘the King’s Great Matter’ – Henry VIII’s struggle to divorce Katherine of Aragon and marry Anne Boleyn – that it must be getting very difficult for authors to find new and interesting ways to approach the subject. Thomas Crockett’s solution is to tell the story in the form of alternating monologues written from the perspectives of Henry, Katherine and Anne in an attempt to create a theatrical feel, as if the three main players were standing on a stage sharing their thoughts directly with the audience.

If you’ve read about this period before, there’s nothing very new here; for the most part, the plot follows the known historical facts, except where it’s necessary for the author to make personal choices on how to interpret certain points – for example, the question of whether Katherine’s earlier marriage to Henry’s brother, Prince Arthur, had been consummated (this was the basis for Henry’s claim that his own marriage to Katherine should be declared invalid). The appeal of the book, for me, was not so much what it was about but the way in which it was written, taking us into the minds of Katherine and Anne – and also Henry, as most of the other Tudor novels I’ve read have focused on the women and not really given Henry a chance to tell his side of the story.

Despite them sharing their private thoughts and emotions with us, I didn’t find any of the three narrators at all likeable. It’s certainly easiest to have sympathy for Katherine as she was treated so badly by Henry, blamed for their failure to produce a son and cast off to live the rest of her life under increasingly poor and unhealthy conditions as she is put under pressure to agree to the divorce. However, as she spends most of this period in the confines of the damp, cold castles to which she has been banished, not much actually happens to Katherine over the course of the novel and I felt that her monologues became very repetitive.

Anne Boleyn’s voice and story are stronger and more engaging as she talks about her struggle to be accepted as Henry’s queen and her own failure to give birth to a male heir, before falling out of favour in her turn. She is very much the villain of the book, though, which is often the case in Tudor novels and I would have preferred something more nuanced rather than yet another portrayal of Anne as ruthless, spiteful and consumed by hatred for Katherine and her daughter, Mary. As for Henry, it’s difficult to have much sympathy for him, knowing how he treated his wives, but I did feel his frustration over how long the Great Matter was taking to be resolved and his worries for the future of the kingdom should he die before the succession was secured.

The novel goes into a huge amount of detail regarding every aspect of the Great Matter and although the short, rapidly switching monologues made it tempting to keep saying ‘just one more chapter’, I didn’t find it a particularly quick or easy read. As part of the stream-of-consciousness style of writing, there’s an absence of punctuation to indicate when someone is speaking and that made it difficult to follow the dialogue at times. Still, overall I enjoyed reading this book and appreciate Thomas Crockett’s attempt to do something a little bit different. Although I’m not really a fan of audiobooks, I do think this particular novel would work well in audio format, with different narrators expressing the unique voices and personalities of the three characters.

In case it has escaped anyone’s notice, Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror and the Light will be published later this week, and I know some readers have been re-reading Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies in preparation. I decided not to do that, but The Great Matter Monologues, in which Thomas Cromwell plays an important part, covers the same period of history, so this was the perfect time to read this book!

Thanks to John Hunt Publishing for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.