The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood

I wanted to join in with this year’s Margaret Atwood Reading Month (hosted by Buried in Print) but knew I wouldn’t have time for one of her longer novels; The Penelopiad, at 199 pages, seemed the perfect choice as it would also count for the Novellas in November event (hosted by 746 Books and Bookish Beck). The Penelopiad was published in 2005 as part of the Canongate Myths series, of which I’ve previously read Baba Yaga Laid an Egg by Dubravka Ugrešić and Ragnarok by AS Byatt. It’s a retelling of the events of the Odyssey from the perspectives of Penelope and the twelve maids who were hanged by her son, Telemachus.

Penelope narrates her story from a modern day underworld where she wanders through the fields of asphodel occasionally encountering the spirits of other characters from Greek mythology. With little to do in the afterlife other than to think and remember, Penelope recalls her childhood in Sparta, her marriage to Odysseus and, particularly, the events that followed her husband’s departure to fight in the Trojan War. Left behind in Ithaca to raise baby Telemachus, Penelope awaits news of Odysseus but as the years go by it looks less and less likely that he is going to return.

Many of you will already know how the story progresses from there – the suitors, the shroud, the fate of the twelve maids, the bed carved from an olive tree – so I won’t go into the plot in any more detail. However, Atwood doesn’t just use Homer’s Odyssey as a source; she also draws upon other works including Robert Graves’ The Greek Myths to help fill in the gaps and provide a different view of Penelope’s character and story. Penelope is usually associated with faithfulness and patience and seen as perhaps a less interesting woman than Helen of Troy or Clytemnestra; in The Penelopiad, Penelope tells us how frustrated she is with the way she has been portrayed and how she really feels about rivals such as Helen.

Penelope’s own narrative is interrupted now and then by her twelve maids, who speak with one voice in a Greek chorus. As well as giving their own version of the events that build up to Odysseus ordering Telemachus to kill them, they also comment on Penelope’s account, leading us to question her motives and to wonder what exactly was and was not true. The sections narrated by the maids are written in a different style every time – a poem, a ballad, a lecture and even a court trial – but although I understood the need for a second perspective other than Penelope’s, these were my least favourite parts of the book. I found the modern language used by Penelope and the maids a bit jarring too and I think overall, I would have just preferred a more straightforward and conventional retelling of Penelope’s story.

I didn’t find this as satisfying as the other Margaret Atwood books I’ve read, but it was a quick, witty and entertaining read and it’s always good to see women from Greek myth given voices of their own.

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.

Hag-Seed by Margaret Atwood

This month I’ve been taking part in Nonfiction November, but it’s also Margaret Atwood Reading Month hosted by Naomi at Consumed by Ink and Marcie at BuriedInPrint. I was planning to read one of her longer books – The Blind Assassin or possibly Cat’s Eye, but I found myself running out of time towards the end of the month, so I decided on the much shorter Hag-Seed instead. This book is part of the Hogarth Shakespeare series of retellings of Shakespeare’s plays by modern authors.

Felix Phillips had a successful career as Artistic Director of the Makeshiweg Theatre Festival until his assistant, Tony, betrayed him and took his job. Forced to abandon his plans to stage a contemporary version of The Tempest – a play close to his heart, having recently lost his three-year-old daughter Miranda (who shared her name with Shakespeare’s heroine) – Felix drops out of public life and begins to plot his revenge. Under the name of Mr Duke, he applies for a position at Fletcher Correctional, helping to improve the literacy of the prisoners. Here he will have his chance to direct The Tempest after all, while making his enemies pay for what they have done.

The Tempest is a play that I know quite well, although I wish I’d found time to re-read it before starting Hag-Seed. I’m tempted to do that now, but I think reading them in the opposite order would have been more helpful! I enjoyed watching the prisoners as they study the play for the first time and try to interpret it in their own unique way (could Ariel have been an alien rather than a fairy? Would Shakepeare’s songs be improved by rewriting them as rap?) Personally, when it comes to adaptations of books and plays, I don’t usually like to see things being modernised or given ‘contemporary twists’, but even so it was good to see the Fletcher Correctional Players having so much fun and being so inventive.

Felix plays Prospero, the magician and rightful Duke of Milan, in the prisoners’ production, but he also fills the role of Prospero in the framing narrative. The prison represents the magical island to which Prospero is exiled, while Tony is clearly the equivalent of Prospero’s usurping brother, Antonio. Events in Felix’s life mirror events from The Tempest, coincidentally at the beginning, but then intentionally as he begins to orchestrate his plan for revenge. And of course, even as Felix controls and manipulates the other characters, we know that he is also a character and a prisoner, caught between the pages of Margaret Atwood’s novel, controlled and manipulated by Atwood herself.

Having some familiarity with the play does make it easier to understand and unravel the many layers of Hag-Seed, but if you’re not familiar with it, that shouldn’t be a problem as the whole story is told at various points in the novel, in various different ways (including a full summary at the end of the book). We can learn along with the prisoners as they try to identify the nine types of prison portrayed in the play and as they write an analysis of their chosen character and imagine how his or her story might continue after the play comes to an end. I particularly enjoyed the contributions made by Anne-Marie Greenland, the actress and dancer Felix brings in to play the part of Miranda.

As for the real Miranda – Felix’s daughter who died as a child – the novel is as much about Felix’s feelings for her and his inability to let things go and move on as it is about anything else. Without saying too much, I really liked the way that part of the story was resolved and the way the novel ended.

I must read some of those longer Atwood novels soon – and I would like to try another of the Hogarth Shakespeare books too.

Classics Club Monthly Meme: Question #42 – Science Fiction and Mysteries

The Classics Club

On the 26th of each month the Classics Club post a question for members to answer during the following month. It’s been a while since I last participated so I’ve decided to join in with this one. The question below was contributed by club member Fariba:

“What is your favourite mystery or science fiction classic? Why do you think it is a classic? Why do you like it?”

I haven’t read a huge number of classics from either of these genres, so rather than pick favourites I’m simply going to write about a few books I’ve enjoyed which fall into each category. First, let’s look at classic mysteries…


And Then There Were None The first author to come to mind when I think about classic mysteries is Agatha Christie. Although I haven’t read all of her books yet (not even half of them), I’ve loved most of those that I have read, particularly And Then There Were None. It’s such a simple idea – ten strangers are cut off from the world on an isolated island and start to be killed off one by one – but the solution is fiendishly clever!

My next choice is from the Victorian period: a book which TS Eliot famously described as “the first, the longest, and the best of modern English detective novels”. It’s The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins, a novel which centres around the disappearance of a valuable Indian diamond. As anyone who has read it will know, the mystery itself is almost secondary to the wonderful array of memorable narrators, especially Gabriel Betteredge, the elderly servant.

With my interest in history, I also enjoyed The Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey, in which a detective recuperating in hospital decides to amuse himself by trying to solve the mystery of Richard III and the Princes in the Tower. In 1990 this book came top of the British Crime Writers’ Association’s Top 100 Crime Novels of All Time list. I haven’t read any of Tey’s other mysteries yet, but I have A Shilling for Candles on my shelf to read soon.

Science Fiction

The Midwich Cuckoos A few years ago I read and loved The Midwich Cuckoos, a classic science fiction novel about a mysterious phenomenon which occurs in a quiet English village. I was (and still am) intending to read more of John Wyndham’s books, but haven’t got round to it yet. I know some of his other novels are regarded as being better than this one, so I’m looking forward to trying them for myself.

HG Wells is one of the most famous authors of classic science fiction and so far I have read two of his books – The Island of Doctor Moreau and The Time Machine. I enjoyed both of these novels but I didn’t find either of them entirely satisfying. In the case of The Time Machine in particular, I felt that there were a lot of ideas which could have been explored in more depth. I’m sure I’ll read more of Wells’ novels eventually.

If I can also class dystopian novels as science fiction, there are quite a few that I’ve read including, years ago, 1984 by George Orwell and Brave New World by Aldous Huxley and, more recently, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. Otherwise, I really haven’t read much science fiction at all and would love some recommendations!

Have you read any classic mystery or science fiction novels? Which are your favourites?

Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood

Alias Grace This is only the second book I’ve read by Margaret Atwood. The first was The Handmaid’s Tale, which I read in December 2012 and loved; thinking about which one to read next, Alias Grace sounded the most appealing to me but it wasn’t until it was selected for my Ten From the TBR project last month that I actually got round to reading it.

Alias Grace is a work of fiction based on a true story: the story of Grace Marks, a woman sentenced to life imprisonment for murder in 1840s Canada. Grace (who was only sixteen at the time) and her alleged accomplice, James McDermott, were accused of the murders of their employer, Thomas Kinnear, and his housekeeper, Nancy Montgomery. Grace has been in the Kingston Penitentiary for fifteen years when Simon Jordan, a doctor with an interest in criminal behaviour, decides to visit her as part of his research.

Although Grace claims to have no memory of the murders, she does have plenty of other memories which she gradually shares with Dr Jordan: her childhood in Ireland, her journey across the Atlantic and arrival in Canada, her first job as a maid and her friendship with a girl called Mary Whitney – and finally, the time she spent in Kinnear’s household prior to the murders.

As Dr Jordan listens to her story unfold, he tries to make up his mind about Grace. Is she being completely honest with him? Is she really guilty of the crimes of which she has been accused? Margaret Atwood doesn’t offer any answers here; it is left up to the reader to decide – but proving Grace’s guilt or innocence is not really the point of this book. Grace’s life story is interesting in itself, giving us some insights into what it was like to be an Irish immigrant in the 19th century, and the novel also explores attitudes towards women and towards mental illness at that time.

Alias Grace is a fascinating blend of fact and fiction. Grace Marks really existed but although Atwood states in her author’s note that she has not changed any of the known facts regarding the murder case, there were enough gaps in the records to allow her to invent parts of the story. Simon Jordan is a fictional character, but his inclusion in the novel adds another perspective – and also another layer, because we can never be sure whether Grace is telling him the truth or just saying what she thinks he would like to hear. Hannah Kent uses a similar device in Burial Rites and as I read, I did keep being reminded of Burial Rites (although Alias Grace was published first, of course).

I loved Alias Grace, but it’s a very different type of book from The Handmaid’s Tale, which has made me curious about the rest of Margaret Atwood’s novels. Which one do you think I should read next?

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.