The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

The Handmaid's Tale This is the first book I’ve read by Margaret Atwood. I was starting to feel slightly embarrassed about never having read any of her work, so when Yvann, Iris, Ana and Alex announced that they were hosting an Advent with Atwood event this December it seemed a perfect opportunity to finally read one. I decided to start with The Handmaid’s Tale because it’s a modern classic and the most well known of her novels.

Our narrator Offred lives in the Republic of Gilead, which was once the USA until the president was assassinated, the government overthrown and a totalitarian religious group took control. In this new dystopian society, women no longer have any of the rights or freedoms they had before; they’re not allowed to work, not allowed to have their own bank accounts, not even allowed to read in case reading leads them into temptation. Reproduction is a problem in Gilead; for some unspecified reason, possibly a nuclear disaster, the birth rate is now very low. Offred belongs to a group of fertile women known as ‘Handmaids’ whose job it is to provide children for the Commanders – the leaders of the new community – whose wives have not been able to conceive. If a Handmaid repeatedly fails to do this, she will be declared an Unwoman and banished to the Colonies to clean up radioactive waste.

The Handmaids are part of a new hierarchy and supposedly less powerful than the Wives; however, we soon discover that life is not easy for the Wives either. They have no real freedom and resent sharing their husbands with the Handmaids. The Handmaids themselves have been deprived of many of the most basic human rights and are valued only for their bodies and for the role they play in bearing children. Their individuality has been stripped away; they all wear the same long red dresses and even their own names have been taken away from them as they are now considered to be the property of their Commander, hence Offred’s new name (Of Fred).

At first I assumed I was reading about a society far into the distant future but it quickly became obvious that was not the case, because Offred remembers living a normal 20th century life with a job, a family and friends, just a few years earlier. We only gradually learn how the Republic of Gilead came into existence and how in such a short period of time everything changed and people were forced to adapt to an entirely different way of life. What makes this book so disturbing is that the type of community Atwood is writing about is not completely far-fetched or implausible. Many of the things she describes are things that have actually happened in some part of the world at some time in the past, or that might even still be happening at this moment, and so the depiction of Gilead is terrifyingly believable.

I really liked Atwood’s writing, I loved the book and I know I haven’t been able to do it justice in this post. Some books are much easier to write about than others and this, for me, is not one of the easy ones. I’ve found it very difficult to say what I wanted to say about it without giving too much away to anyone who hasn’t read it yet. While I was reading the book I was making notes of all the things I wanted to mention but when I started to type them up I decided it would be fairer to leave future readers to discover all the little details of the plot for themselves. And so I hope I’ve said enough to convince you to give this book a try if you haven’t already! I will definitely be reading more of Atwood’s work, not during Advent but certainly in 2013.

Alas, Poor Lady by Rachel Ferguson

This is the book that I received for Christmas from my Persephone Secret Santa, Margaret of Ten Thousand Places. Choosing a book for another person is never easy, but of all the titles published by Persephone Margaret managed to select one that was perfect for me. Thank you, Margaret!

Alas, Poor Lady tells the story of one London family, the Scrimgeours, over a period of more than sixty years, from the Victorian era through to the 1930s. Captain and Mrs Scrimgeour have eight children – seven are girls and only one, the youngest, is a boy – and we get to know all of them, some better than others. We watch as they grow up and try to find their place in society – a society designed to cater only for men and, to a lesser extent, for married women. For a woman who stayed single (whether by choice or not) her options in life were very limited.

Three of the Scrimgeour girls marry and leave home early in the story, though they do reappear from time to time. Of the other four, Mary is the eldest sister still living at home and is portrayed as the stereotypical ‘spinster’, a quiet, sensible woman who can usually be found reading a book and who has never really been expected to get married. Agatha decides to follow a different route after it starts to look likely that she, like Mary, is also going to remain single – but will this really lead to happiness? What Queenie really wants is to get a job, but after considering several possible career paths is forced to come to a disappointing conclusion. And finally there’s Grace, the youngest sister, who through no fault of her own finds herself facing poverty and in the uncomfortable position of becoming a burden to her family.

Although the focus of the book is on the seven girls, it’s interesting to see how their brother, Charlie, is also under pressure to conform to society’s expectations of how a boy should behave. In some ways, he doesn’t really have any more freedom to be himself than his sisters do. His father is furious with him when he discovers him playing with Grace’s doll, for example, instead of his own toy soldiers.

Another thing I liked was the amount of information we are given on everyday life in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Although the Captain keeps insisting he’s ‘not a rich man’ and worrying about money, the Scrimgeours are evidently a very wealthy family with a large house and servants. It was interesting to see how their way of life changed over the years as a result of poor financial decisions and changing economics.

I loved this book but I know it won’t appeal to everyone. It’s slow and detailed, doesn’t have a lot of plot, and it did seem to take me a long time to read it. And yet without anything really ‘happening’ there’s still so much going on in this book that this post could easily have been twice as long as it is.

So, for anyone with an interest in feminism and the differing roles of men and women in society, I can’t recommend Alas, Poor Lady highly enough. Although my favourite Persephone so far is still Little Boy Lost (largely due to the emotional impact it had on me) this one is now a close second.

Ann Veronica by H.G. Wells

I’ve never read anything by H.G. Wells before and never thought he would be an author I would enjoy. In fact, I hadn’t even realised he had written anything other than the science fiction books he’s famous for (The War of the Worlds, The Invisible Man, The Time Machine etc) and as I’m not a lover of science fiction, none of those have ever really appealed. So when I noticed this one in the library, sounding entirely different to the books I’ve just mentioned, I was intrigued and decided to give it a try.

The story is set in the early years of the 20th century and the title character is twenty-one-year-old biology student Ann Veronica Stanley. Tired of being locked in a constant battle of wills with her father, a strict and conservative solicitor who has very strong opinions about women and their place in society, she decides to run away to London to start an independent life of her own. In London, she is exposed to a range of influences and experiences (including the suffragette movement), becomes involved with several different men, and discovers that life can be difficult for a young single woman living on her own.

I wouldn’t recommend this novel to people who are looking for something with lots of action but if you’re in the mood for a slower, more character-driven story this is a very interesting read. And as a book about feminism written by a male author, I’m sure it must have caused controversy when it was first published in 1909. The book wasn’t perfect though – the main character started to irritate me after a while and at times it felt less like a novel and more of a vehicle for Wells to express his views on feminism, politics and science.

The first half of the book is concerned mainly with Ann Veronica’s struggle to gain independence from her father. She considers it unreasonable that he won’t let her go to a party in London with her friends and that he refuses to let her attend Imperial College to study for her science degree. And yet Ann Veronica’s father clearly loves his daughter and is not trying to be unkind to her – he truly believes women should behave in a certain way and it puzzles him that Ann Veronica doesn’t want to conform.

After a promising beginning, the second half of the book was dominated by a romantic storyline which became very sentimental and started to bore me. And although I can’t say too much because I don’t want to spoil the story for anyone, I was quite disappointed with the way the book ended and felt confused as to exactly what point Wells was trying to make. So, although I was left with mixed feelings about this book, at least it’s taught me not to have pre-conceived ideas about certain authors. I do feel happier about maybe trying one of his science fiction books now.

The version I read was the Penguin Classics one, but for those of you who like to collect Virago Modern Classics it has also been published as a VMC (and is one of the few written by a man).

Baba Yaga Laid an Egg by Dubravka Ugresic

Baba Yaga Laid an Egg is part of the Myths series by Canongate Books, in which authors retell traditional myths from around the world in a new and original way. This book by Croatian author Dubravka Ugresic takes a fresh and unusual approach to the Slavic myth of Baba Yaga.

Baba Yaga (shown here in a painting by Viktor Vasnetsov – picture from Wikipedia in public domain) is usually portrayed as a hag or witch who lives in a log cabin mounted on a pair of chicken legs. She uses a giant mortar and pestle to fly through the air, kidnapping and threatening to eat small children. Although she has a terrifying appearance, Baba Yaga is also said to possess great wisdom and will sometimes give help and advice to anyone brave enough to ask.

Rather than simply reiterating this myth, Ugresic relates the myth to the lives of modern women and explores a large number of topics including ageing, feminism, love and loneliness. The book does not follow the format of a conventional novel and is divided into three separate and seemingly unconnected stories.

In the first story, the narrator travels to Varna in Bulgaria, the childhood home of her mother who is now old and ill. In the second story, we meet Beba, Pupa and Kukla, three old women who are staying together at a spa in the Czech Republic. But what is the connection between these two stories and what do they have to do with Baba Yaga? I have to admit, by this point I was starting to feel slightly confused. Yes, I had learned a lot about growing old, but how did all of these things relate to the myth of Baba Yaga? Luckily, I found the answers to my questions in the third and final section of the book.

Part 3 is presented as if a folklore expert was responding to a request for information about Baba Yaga and had been asked to explain the meaning of the first two sections. This part of the book was fascinating but began to feel like a very, very long encyclopedia entry. I previously knew almost nothing about Baba Yaga though, so it was good to learn something about the myth. I was also pleased at how well this final section pulled all the threads of the book together and helped me understand the significance of everything I had just been reading.

This book should appeal to anyone who has ever worried about growing old or anyone with an interest in mythology as it relates to feminism. I can’t honestly say that I loved this book or even that I particularly enjoyed it, but it was a very interesting concept and I’m glad I decided to give it a try.

Has anyone read any of the other Canongate Myths books. Are they similar to this one?