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Review: The Testaments

At long last, after years of thinking of The Handmaid’s Tale as a stand-alone novel, after months of anticipation for its sudden sequel, after days of reading delays and blogging delays (oops), it’s time to talk about Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments. I won’t spoil anything from either book, but I’m going to assume that if you’re here, you’ve probably read The Handmaid’s Tale or at least have some idea of what it’s about.

I read this out of my own interest in Atwood’s writing and her portrayal of Gilead, but it was also No. 8/13 on the Booker Prize longlist for me, and 2/6 on the shortlist.

thetestamentsIn the novel, fifteen years after the events of The Handmaid’s Tale, Aunt Lydia secretly pens an account of the horrifying trials she faced during the birth of Gilead, the questionable choices she made from her position of leadership in the aftermath, and her own solution to the problem of female oppression in the former United States. Interwoven with her narrative are the testimonies of two girls experiencing major life changes at that same time- one who grew up in Gilead under the Aunts’ teachings, and one raised in Canada amidst protests and outrage for conditions across the border. These threads, of course, weave together with time.

“Gilead is a slippery place: accidents happen frequently. Someone has already written my funeral eulogy, it goes without saying. I shiver: whose feet are walking on my grave?”

It’s finally happened: I’ve actually disliked a Margaret Atwood book. But before I get into the negatives, I’d like to say that I do think The Handmaid’s Tale is well worth the read even for those who choose to opt out of picking up this sequel, and also that I think this is a book that will work better for many readers than it did for me. Should you read The Testaments? Picture it this way:

The end of The Handmaid’s Tale is a door slammed shut. The narrative ends at a crucial moment that is either very good or very bad for the main character, but before telling us which, Atwood locks that door and walks away, with the truth standing on one side and the reader stuck firmly on the other, left to decide for themselves where the story goes next. Surprisingly, The Handmaid’s Tale: A Graphic Novel gives the reader a foothold, propping that door open just enough to offer certain implications, certain glimpses, into What Happens Next. There’s a big nod in The Testaments to the graphic novel’s final sequence. But ultimately, The Testaments throws that closed door wide open. Whether you’ll appreciate this sequel largely depends on whether you’re a reader who enjoyed imagining your own final solution when that door slammed, or whether you’re a reader with a lot of burning questions, pounding your fists on the door and wanting nothing left to uncertainty. It’s a choice each reader will have to make for themselves, rather than a flat verdict.

Because while The Testaments follows three new perspectives, we do find out here what happened to Offred.  Not every step of the rest of her life, but the general outline. This is going to satisfy a lot of curious readers, and alienate others.

Another divisive element is the fact that The Testaments is very much a book of its time. Where The Handmaid’s Tale is meant to horrify and frighten, its sequel is meant to empower and uplift. It’s not a book full of sunshine and happiness, but it tends toward female hope and perseverance in a way that its predecessor doesn’t. If this sounds like a tonal shift that interests you, odds are you’ll probably enjoy this more than I did.

But while I think opinions on whether this is a “good” sequel are going to vary wildly person to person, I think an argument can certainly be made that The Testaments is not Atwood’s best book. There are undeniably moments of brilliance in the writing, and Aunt Lydia is such a complex and intriguing character. I actually kept picturing her as Margaret Atwood while reading, though I think that has more to do with the fact that Aunt Lydia was the only character here who felt like she could have been a real person to me than any actual personality similarities (I do not know Atwood personally, obviously). For me, the pros ended there.

The cons were numerous. First, though there were some great lines, more often it felt like Atwood had lost all faith in her readers being able to pull meaning from her writing. Details are spelled out at an excruciating level:

“We joined a herd of other women: I describe it as a herd because we were being herded.”

“They were supposed to teach us how to act as mistresses of high-ranking households. I say “act” in a dual sense: we were to be actresses on the stages of our future houses.”

This lack of subtlety is not limited to the writing style itself; where The Handmaid’s Tale allows small plot details to speak for much larger problems in Gilead, The Testaments foreshadows it’s action-packed plot to such an extent that absolutely every major event and revelation actually feels anticlimactic. Additionally, the plot itself is such a standard dystopian arc that even without hints it would likely feel utterly predictable for anyone familiar with the genre, and everything comes so conveniently, impossibly easy to our heroines that I found it failed to even entertain at a basic level. Daisy and Agnes, the two younger perspectives, seem completely contrived and practically lifeless in the way that they react (or fail to react) to deaths, difficult tasks, and having their lives upturned. The format of the novel requires these women to look back on their experiences from some future point, but there’s no real attempt made at reflection, leaving even the structure feeling arbitrary and unrealized. Where is the crafting expertise Atwood utilized in The Blind Assassin? Where is the wacky, compelling plotting from The Heart Goes Last? Where is the care with which she created a new story from a beloved classic as in Hag-Seed? None of those skills seem to have carried over into The Testaments.

But you can take those opinions with a grain of salt, as many readers do seem to be loving this return to Gilead, or at least finding it wildly entertaining. Something that bothers me more than plot or characters, (something that I began to address in my review of The Handmaid’s Tale: A Graphic Novel based on its ending, which was built upon in The Testaments), is the way that this change of direction from The Handmaid’s Tale even seems to subvert the original message of that book. The Handmaid’s Tale is cautionary- it’s meant to alarm readers into considering what might happen if we grow too complacent (this is aside from the fact that the details of The Handmaid’s Tale come from real problems women have already faced or are facing elsewhere in the world, but that’s another matter); The Testaments, with all its hope, says, “there’s no need to worry, even if things go wrong everything will turn out all right in the end.” It’s a comforting theme, maybe an inspiring one in some circumstances, but it seems to speak directly against the “let’s not let this happen in the first place” spirit of that first novel. Gone is the outrage that these circumstances might affect even one woman- in fact, outrage isn’t much of a factor in this novel at all. The optimism of its final chapter may even suggest that we might benefit from our world going so awry, because it would give us the opportunity to rebuild a country that seems already cracked and broken. Politically, it’s a perfect fit for 2019, and probably has something better to say about the ultimate fate of female oppression than The Handmaid’s Tale, but for me the message here just wasn’t as strong and didn’t quite ring true as a answer to the brilliant novel that precedes it.

Though this worked as neither a sequel nor a story in its own right for me, I’m not entirely mystified by the fact that it is having more success among other readers. Atwood is a big name in the publishing world for a reason, and The Testaments is not entirely devoid of merit. It is never my intent when I write a negative review to scare off interested readers, and I didn’t find this to be in any way an offensive book- just a book that completely failed to live up to its potential. I hope that it won’t win the Booker Prize next month… but I also hope that if you’re picking this one up, you have more fun with it than I did. Every book deserves to find its audience.

“Aunt Vidala said that best friends led to whispering and plotting and keeping secrets, and plotting and secrets led to disobedience to God, and disobedience led to rebellion, and girls who were rebellious became women who were rebellious, and a rebellious woman was even worse than a rebellious man because rebellious men became traitors, but rebellious women became adulteresses.”

My reaction: 2 out of 5 stars. I don’t want to think that I would’ve been against any possible sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale, despite my appreciation for its ambiguous ending, but this really wasn’t it for me. I’m not surprised at its commercial success so far, but I am a bit surprised it’s doing so well with the Booker judges. If by some chance this book wins, I will believe to the end of my days that it passed on the strength of the original novel that should have been worthy of a Booker win, rather than on its own substance. But I suppose I should close before I get any more petty. I’m glad I gave this one a chance, but sad that it didn’t live up to expectations. Maybe next time, Atwood.

Have you read this one? What did you think?

 

The Literary Elephant

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Reviews: The Handmaid’s Tale Graphic Novel and Mary’s Monster

I read two graphic novels of sorts (one is very hard to categorize) last week, so here’s a two-for-the-price-of-one set of reviews!

 

thehandmaidstalegraphicnovelThe Handmaid’s Tale: A Graphic Novel by Margaret Atwood, art and adaptation by Renee Nault – 4 stars

I picked up this adaptation of Atwood’s beloved modern classic as a quick refresher before diving into The Testaments (which I’ll hopefully be wrapping up and reviewing in a couple of days).

Initially, I realized that what I remembered most from the novel was the world of Gilead and all of its terrible rules of operation; I wasn’t quite as clear on the specific characters or events. The more I read, the more this pattern made sense, as the plot of this novel actually matters very little- it’s a vehicle Atwood (and here Nault) uses to explore the extremes of this political scenario. Our main character, Offred, isn’t special, she’s just the face chosen to show the reader the “norm” for the women of this society. Every other person that she interacts with- be they Handmaids, Marthas, Wives, Commanders, Guardians, Angels, Aunts, etc. are also singular faces representing a greater majority. They’re Gilead stereotypes. The power of the novel comes from the fact that for the reader, the revelation of every unjust detail of the  Handmaid’s existence is an event in itself. This is precisely why I wasn’t ready for a full reread of the actual novel yet- without its power to surprise with rampant sexism and very thorough slavery of women, The Handmaid’s Tale loses a substantial amount of its power.

With the graphic novel, excellent visual art made for a somewhat new experience with the familiar story. The colors used are bold and striking, with a tendency toward bright red, the style stark but not sparse. I thought Nault did a wonderful job of keeping each face unique and recognizable amidst a sea of matching uniforms. The art is understated but elegant.

The language also feels very true to Atwood’s original work; it’s been a little while since I’ve read The Handmaid’s Tale so I can’t swear to Nault’s words being lifted directly from Atwood’s pages, but they gave me that impression. It’s a very faithful adaptation in content and spirit.

“Better never means better for everyone. It always means worse, for some.”

Well, faithful until the end. Throughout most of this read, it was a perfect 5 star experience; I couldn’t remember why I had only rated The Handmaid’s Tale at 4 stars and was fully prepared to love this graphic rendering even more than the original. But the last three pages take this narrative a step farther than the novel’s perfect, ambiguous ending, lending a hint of softness to what is otherwise a very bleak speculation of how far unchecked misogyny could go in the US. While I appreciate the framing concept behind those last three pages, and even marked a great quote from within them, they suggest a light at the end of the tunnel. This cautionary tale of what could (and does, in some places) happen to women in a world without feminism is buffered here by the closing indicator that no matter how bad things get, justice will win in the end. It seems to go against the entire purpose of the story, in my opinion. (Which is also part of the reason I’m struggling with The Testaments, but I’ll get more into that later.)

So, all in all, a fantastic rendering of a tale for the ages that I’d love to own a copy of someday, though I’d like to pretend the final scene it depicts doesn’t exist.

“As all historians know, the past is a great darkness, and filled with echoes. Voices may reach us from it, but, try as we may, we cannot always decipher them precisely in the clearer light of our own day.”

 

marysmonsterMary’s Monster: Love, Madness, and How Mary Shelley Created FRANKENSTEIN by Lita Judge – 5 stars

I picked up this barely-categorizable work of art at Callum’s excellent recommendation, after adoring another ode to Shelley’s classic, Winterson’s Frankissstein. My love for Frankenstein grows exponentially the more I learn about Shelley’s real life, which of course is so intricately entwined with the themes of her novel.

“I am not just an unwed girl. / I can choose to forgive. / I can choose to live again, / broken but breathing, / half lover, half pain.”

Though I refer to this one as a graphic novel for ease of drawing on a familiar image, Mary’s Monster is actually a fictionalized account of Mary Shelley’s real life, told through non-rhyming poetry, and accompanied by gorgeous, haunting, black and white drawings. The color scheme reminds us that despite the first-person present-tense narration this story is grounded in the early 19th century. The art is pretty, with soft edges, but it conveys such a depth of pain and sorrow.

The book opens on Mary’s young childhood, and the tone and language put me in mind of YA lit (this impression was probably reinforced by the fact that it was shelved in the YA section at my library); I think this would be appropriate for a teen audience (perhaps English classes that require students to read Frankenstein might benefit from using this as an accompanying text), as long as readers are prepared for how dark a tale this is. As Mary grows up, her life becomes more tragic and complex, and all of her tragedies are caught up in her writing. Though I think I would have loved both Frankenstein and Mary’s Monster as a teen, I do however believe there’s a richer experience that comes from reading both as an adult.

So what is this story? It’s an account of Mary Shelley’s relationship with her eventual husband Percy (Bysshe Shelley) and with her own family, her struggle as a young mother and social outcast, the deaths she sees, and her resilience in the face of seemingly hopeless situations. Plus a lot of Frankenstein symbolism. Author Lita Judge has this to say of the of the book:

“The popular myth is that Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein was conceived spontaneously on a stormy night in answer to a dare to write a ghost story. That evening did occur, but countless events in Mary’s life before and after that evening played a much greater role in the horror novel’s creation. My story is an attempt to trace the many origins of her genius. It’s a testament to a resilient girl whose imagination, forged by isolation, persecution, and loss, created a new form of storytelling as a means of connecting with the very society that had socially exiled her.” 

I was slow to warm up to this one, but completely won over in the end. I am now in desperate need of a Frankenstein reread.

 

Ironically, it wasn’t until I suddenly remembered and promptly gave up on my goal to read more graphic novels this year that I picked both of these books up on impulse. I really should make a more serious attempt to follow through in 2020, because clearly the genre has a lot to offer. If you’re at all interested in The Handmaid’s Tale or Frankenstein, I can’t recommend these beautiful books highly enough.

Do you have any more graphic novel recommendations for me?

 

The Literary Elephant

Review: The Turn of the Key

I’ve always had such fun with Ruth Ware’s thrillers (I think I’ve read all of them!) so of course I picked up her 2019 release, The Turn of the Key. I really liked this one, though I think I’m becoming a bit too familiar with Ware’s style… I saw through some of the mystery, though I still found it an engaging read!

theturnofthekeyIn the novel, Rowan answers a nannying ad that sounds like a perfect fit for her; in addition to great pay, she’d have a room in a private home in exchange for looking after 3 or 4 children (the eldest being away at school for part of the story) in a remote Scottish smart house while the parents are away for work. The catch is that between leaving her old job and moving from London for the new one, she has no time to familiarize herself with the house or the children before her new job begins. The smart system that runs the house seems to be acting up, and the children are fighting the presence of yet another new nanny- apparently the last few have been scared away by the house’s tragic history. Can Rowan brazen it out and find her footing in what could be a dream job, or will the house and the girls get the best of her?

“Maddie’s expression was very different, harder to read, but I thought I could tell what it was. Triumph. She had wanted me to get into trouble, and I had.”

In case you haven’t picked up on it by now, let me mention again that I love classic retellings. Ware’s The Turn of the Key is a loose retelling of Henry James’s eerie The Turn of the Screw, which I read and appreciated for its atmosphere and strangeness earlier this summer. The reader does not need to know anything at all about James’s original story to enjoy this thriller, which is more similar in setup than in plot, but I found the small connections quite amusing.

The Turn of the Key is formatted as a series of letters to a lawyer that the incarcerated nanny hopes will help her case; as the story opens, she has already been arrested for the death of one of the children. This structure, which assumes the lawyer already knows the basic facts of the sensationalized case (such as the nanny’s ulterior motive for applying to this particular job, and the identity of the dead child) allow our narrator to hint at but largely withhold key details from the reader and thus frame her tale as a mystery. Some of the nanny’s direct pleas to the lawyer and guesses at his reactions to the most controversial moments of her narrative felt overdone and pulled me out of the main story, but overall I found it an effective framing technique. There is some extra significance given to these letters at the end of the book that lends purpose to the structure. Once it gets going, the mystery flows well and it’s easy to retreat into Rowan’s experience with the children and the house until the letters become more essential to the story.

“It sounded… well… as if there was someone pacing in the room above my head. But that made no sense either. Because there was no room up there. There was not so much as a loft hatch.”

For readers new to Ware’s work, I think The Turn of the Key would be an excellent place to start. As usual, she gives us a remote location, a house that feels almost like a character in itself, a handful of side characters that are difficult to decide whether to trust, and a narrator with a secret up her sleeve. Intriguing  questions are introduced immediately. Some things seem “off” pretty early on- Rowan is a qualified nanny who does seem to care about children, but we know right away that she had another reason to apply for this particular job, and little details in the story she gives her new employers don’t quite add up. Then there’s the malfunctioning smart system in the house, which seems in perfect working order except that it seems to be following orders no one in the house is authorized to access in the control menu. But though some aspects may be a bit transparent, Ware still manages to hold the reader’s attention and offers a movingly human solution to the mystery of the unpredictable smart house. I was thrilled to discover this isn’t just another reiteration of technology going rouge with the belief that it knows better than the humans.

Though I did think the source of the novel’s suspense and ultimate solution seemed unique enough, this isn’t a ground-breaking thriller. I haven’t read any of the other titles from the recent nanny-thriller trend, but still found notable similarities to other recent thrillers I’ve read- the strain from lack of sleep, the too-good-to-be-true ad, the certainty that the culprit must be inside (or very near) the house, etc. It’s a fairly standard representative of its genre, though undeniably solid for its lack of flare.

My only real hold-up here is that I think I’m becoming too familiar with Ware’s style. I’ve read all five of her books now, with a bit less enthusiasm for each volume, though I think that trend comes down to my knowing Ware’s style well enough by now that she can’t quite shock me anymore, rather than a decline in Ware’s capability as a writer. I believe that if I had read her books in any other order, I would feel the same after finishing them as I do now- that the mysteries are becoming a bit too transparent to truly surprise me. And yet, even so, I always enjoy the creepy atmosphere Ware provides, the realistically flawed protagonists, the uneasiness over knowing that every strange occurrence is not a supernatural terror but the work of a malicious (or at least misguided) human hand. Though I saw through some of Ware’s slight-of-hand tactics here straightaway, I was nonetheless drawn in by the creepy noises and touchy technology, the difficult children, the dynamic between Rowan and the family/staff at Heatherbrae. I found this a quick, easy, and mostly satisfying read, despite its failure to stand out from the thriller crowd, and I would highly recommend it to the right reader.

“I did hate them- in that moment. But I saw myself, too. A prickly little girl, full of emotions too big for her small frame, emotions she could not understand or contain.”

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. There’s just something about Ware’s writing that keeps me coming back, and I did have a good time with this one just as all the others. I’ll probably pick up her next book, as well. But I’m also content to put the thriller genre aside for a little while- at least until I need something spooky to pick up in October.

What’s your favorite Ruth Ware novel?

 

The Literary Elephant

Mini-reviews: Faber Stories Pt. 6 (plus full series ranking)

Almost 9 full months after I read my first volume from the Faber Stories collection, I have finally succeeded in finishing off the set of the first twenty volumes! And just in time, as Faber has recently announced another batch of 10 stories to be added to the collection in October. I have thoroughly enjoyed my experience with these little books so far, and do plan to continue with the collection. But for today, I’ll be reviewing the last three stories I read, and then having a bit of fun ranking my favorites!

If you’re interested in seeing my thoughts on more of the stories, you can check out the rest of my mini-reviews here: part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4, and part 5. And without further ado…

 

Daughters of Passion by Julia O’Faolin. 3 stars.

In this story, a woman on a hunger strike in an Irish prison recounts the events that have led her there. In doing so, she also examines her relationship with a friend, and their involvement with the IRA.

Though every aspect of this synopsis intrigued me (hunger strike! prison! Irish! delving into f/f relationships!), somehow none of them managed to satisfy me on the page. I didn’t feel any emotional investment because O’Faolin tries to use the meatiest bits of the story as concluding surprises rather than mining them for the thematic depth I was searching for. Instead of giving me an interesting lens to reflect back on the story with, those late revelations felt more like the beginning of the story I had expected to find here.

Ultimately, an adequate plot with plenty of potential that just utterly failed to engage me.

Three Types of Solitude by Brian Aldiss. 3 stars.

Much as the title suggests, in this volume we are given three short vignettes that feature entirely different characters and scenarios that each ruminate on solitude. Each main character is in some way alone, though others are affected by his choices. Two of the stories feature a sci-fi element.

The first story of this set was my favorite- a judge writes to his wife about a case he claims to be reviewing, in which a man relocates to an uninhabited island with his ventriloquist dummy, to disastrous effect. The epistolary set-up added an extra layer of intrigue, and I found the whole story immensely bizarre and enjoyable. The second story features a celebrity artist on the outs with the public; this one I found a bit slower paced and somewhat boring without a sci-fi element, but I did enjoy its irony, even if a bit overt. The third piece included another interesting sci-fi element: little electronic cubes that appear to converse with each other. The “lesson” of the story isn’t the most original, though I did appreciate the uneasy character dynamic between the couple at the heart of the story.

I flew through this book, found it very entertaining and readable, but didn’t rate it any higher because I’m sure the messages and even the simple plots themselves will fade quickly for me.

” The dummy broke the silence. ‘So what’s this “sad” business mean anyway? I mean, how often do you feel like doing it?’ / ‘Sad? Oh, sadness is just happiness in reverse. We humans have to put up with it. Just being human is an awful burden to bear.’ “

A Good Man is Hard to Find by Flannery O’Connor. 4 stars.

My last Faber Story (from this first set, at least) also turned out to be one of my favorites! I might have read this one in high school because it seemed vaguely familiar, but that didn’t prevent me from thoroughly enjoying the reread.

In this story, three generations- and one cat- pile into the family car for a road trip. What seems at first a satire- a rude family expecting great service and loudly complaining when anything fails to that meet their expectations- takes an even more interesting turn when their stubbornness leads them to encounter a dangerous wanted criminal.

The narration makes no attempt to tell the reader what sort of conclusion to draw from this family’s experience, though the main event of this trip is so momentous that there are plenty of conclusions available for the reader to draw. For me it was a story of two people (enemies, perhaps, or at least opposites) realizing that society is flawed, from opposite ends of the spectrum- one has faced injustice and been slighted by the strong voice of the law, the other has held herself up as righteous and lawful, only to realize that her own sense of morality won’t be enough to save her, either. For such a collection of unpleasant characters, this made for a very amusing and engaging read, and one that I think will only grow richer upon further visits.

faberstories6

 

Concluding thoughts:

Though Daughters of Passion went a bit unrealized, these last two stories were entertaining both in content and style, and I’d happily read both again. I do have Flannery O’connor’s complete story collection sitting on my shelf, and after this positive experience I’m looking forward to reading more of her work!

And for fun, a full ranking of the Faber Stories I’ve read so far, from most to least favorite. This list is completely based on personal preference; I’ve just reread all of my earlier reviews and considered also how well different elements of the stories have stuck with me in the months since I’ve begun reading them. The order is:

  1. The Shielding of Mrs. Forbes by Alan Bennett
  2. The Forester’s Daughter by Claire Keegan
  3. Come Rain or Come Shine by Kazuo Ishiguro
  4. Mrs. Fox by Sarah Hall
  5. A Good Man is Hard to Find by Flannery O’Connor
  6. Mr Salary by Sally Rooney
  7. Paradise by Edna O’Brien
  8. The Inner Room by Robert Aickman
  9. The Lydia Steptoe Stories by Djuna Barnes
  10. Mary Ventura and the Ninth Kingdom by Sylvia Plath
  11. The Victim by P. D. James
  12. Three Types of Solitude by Brian Aldiss
  13. Dante and the Lobster by Samuel Beckett
  14. An Elegy for Easterly by Petina Gappah
  15. Daughters of Passion by Julia O’Faolain
  16. A River in Egypt by David Means
  17. Terrific Mother by Lorrie Moore
  18. The Country Funeral by John McGahern
  19. Sonny Liston was a Friend of Mine by Thom Jones
  20. Cosmopolitan by Akhil Sharma

 

faberstoriescompleteset

(The complete set, pictured in the order I read them.)

It’s worth noting that none of these stories rated below 3-stars for me, that the lowest on the list were simply the most forgettable and none struck me as problematic in any way. Almost all of them either delighted me or encouraged me to consider something from a new perspective, so the set was entirely worth the read for me! I’m eager to check out the next additions to the collection.

Have you read any of these stories, or other works by these authors?

 

The Literary Elephant

 

Review: The Wall

I’m sure that with its recent exclusion from the Booker Prize shortlist interest in John Lanchester’s The Wall may already be decreasing, but I didn’t quite finish reading in time to review it beforehand, so here we are. In any case, this review is more likely to make you feel relieved you didn’t get to this one before the shortlist announcement rather than persuade you to pick it up- I don’t have many positive things to say.

thewallIn the novel, Joseph “Chewy” Kavanagh reports for duty on the Wall (or, the National Coastal Defense Structure); it’s a two-year post of rotating shifts for training, defending the country’s border, and resting the eyes- the glare of the sun off the water makes watching the Wall surprisingly difficult. As the result of a major environmental and climate Change, beaches no longer exist and countries have closed their borders to outsiders- in this case, by conscripting all new adults into active service on the Wall, where they are tasked with shooting any Others who approach. As conditions worsen elsewhere in the world, contact becomes more frequent, and more dangerous for everyone involved- for every Other who crosses the Wall, a Defender is “put to sea.”

“I wanted this time to be over, yet when I tried to think hard about what would be next, there was a blank.”

I should start by admitting that nothing about this novel struck me as overtly problematic. Though I didn’t enjoy the read, I didn’t find anything about it infuriating or alarming- it just didn’t deliver.

Right from the beginning of the novel, the first sentences about Lanchester’s Wall are very reminiscent of George R. R. Martin‘s descriptions of another popular Wall; not in style, but in imagery and sensory detail, as well as purpose (holding back the Others). Though it certainly helps to plant a visual in the reader’s mind, the author’s choice to piggyback off of existing content indicated a level of laziness and lack or originality that sadly persisted throughout the rest of the novel. (Is it possible Lanchester didn’t know about Westeros and the Night’s Watch? Perhaps, but wouldn’t an editor or early reader have made the connection?)

“It’s cold on the Wall. That’s the first thing everybody tells you, and the first thing you notice when you’re sent there, and it’s the thing you think about all the time you’re on it, and it’s the thing you remember when you’re not there anymore. It’s cold on the Wall.”

The repetition and sluggishness to make a point persist as well.

In the second chapter, we begin to see small poems about the Wall (and one about a Christmas tree, completely unrelated to the story at hand) that are offered only as further descriptors of life on the Wall and then are abruptly dropped from the novel; these are the book’s only claim to an interesting structure or experimental style.

“cold:::concrete:::wind:::sky:::water”

The rest is so straightforward that I wonder if it might fare better with a YA audience. If there’s one good thing I can say about The Wall, it’s that I flew through it because of the fast-paced and easy-to-read prose. The catch is that it’s so quick to digest because its parallels to current social and political issues are obvious, but the narration fails to take them a step further by making any new observations or giving a fresh perspective to the real-world events it riffs off of. To me, the setting and basic scenario felt like a well-built home that no one had moved into yet; it lacks life.

I don’t want to say much about the plot, because that’s really all The Wall has going for it, and despite this ranty review, I don’t mean to turn anyone away from reading this book or spoiling it for anyone who is interested- it is a perfectly adequate read. I’m not sure it’s an adequate Booker Prize nominee, but I don’t doubt that readers will be entertained or will be able to find worthwhile messages between the lines. The author does none of the heavy lifting in conveying worthwhile themes here, but a determined reader could make just about anything from the bare bones of this story that they wanted to. Personally, I found the foreshadowing made the events of the novel predictable and the morals overly simplistic, but this isn’t to disparage anyone who takes more from the reading experience than I have. It simply didn’t work for me.

“I’d been brought up not to think about the Others in terms of where they came from or who they were, to ignore all that- they were just Others. But maybe, now that I was one of them, they weren’t Others anymore? If I was an Other and they were Others perhaps none of us were Others but instead we were a new Us. It was confusing.”

In spite of all of my complaints thus far, I might still have chosen a higher rating if the ending wasn’t such a non-ending. Again, I don’t want to give anything away, so I’ll say only that it seemed to me like a convenient and temporary fix that offered no real substance to the storyline. It has nothing to say about the Wall or the Others, no lesson seems to have been learned or advantage gained, none of the core conflicts are in any way likely to be resolved by the main characters’ concluding decisions. They seem as devoid of emotion and opinion as they had through the rest of the novel’s events, and their lack of investment in any sort of future plan makes the derailment of their lives a cold reading experience with incredibly low stakes. “Chewy” doesn’t use his new circumstances to reflect on what he’s been through or the state of  his world. And perhaps this is a statement in itself, though it proved ineffectual for me.

Unfortunately, this title was another low point of the Booker Prize longlist for me.

My reaction: 2 out of 5 stars. I’d seen some disappointing reviews before I got around to picking this one up, but I do enjoy a good sci-fi/dystopian tale now and then and hoped at least to be entertained. Instead, I found myself counting pages until the end, even thought the experience was not particularly difficult or time-consuming. This was just… not at all what I expected from a literary prize nominee.

Have you read this one, or anything else from John Lanchester? What did you think?

 

The Literary Elephant

Review: Frankissstein

CW: homophobia, transphobia, rape (on the page, plus other instances mentioned), misogyny, deaths of children (due to illness), unauthorized appropriation of severed body parts.

My Booker Prize adventure continues with a standout: Jeanette Winterson’s Frankissstein. This was my sixth read from this year’s longlist, and my favorite so far!

frankisssteinIn the novel, Mary Shelley waits out a rainstorm with her friends in 1816, participating in a challenge to create the most monstrous tale- the historical conception of her famed novel, Frankenstein. Alternatively, in Brexit Britain, Ry Shelley becomes acquainted with a couple of prominent men in robotics and AI. Victor is a scientist who believes artificial intelligence will become the next species at the top of the food chain- soon, and to the world’s benefit; meanwhile, Ron Lord is a businessman who’s found a lucrative career in selling sex bots to men. Each character’s career and personal interests circle around existential questions and also brush against matters of gender and identity.

“In some ways machines are easier to deal with. If I had just told machine intelligence that I am now a man, although I was born a woman, it wouldn’t slow up its processing speed.”

I might as well say up front that I loved everything about this novel, and that my existing love for Shelley’s original Frankenstein probably predisposed me toward complete enjoyment of Winterson’s homage. Though I do not think one necessarily needs to have read or really known anything about Shelley’s classic to enjoy Frankissstein, appreciation for the former will certainly improve your chances of appreciating the latter. The reason for this is that Winterson is not simply recreating or retelling Shelley’s gruesome story, but expanding upon it and paying tribute. Enough details from the original story and Shelley’s own background are provided alongside Winterson’s modern storyline that any casual reader should be able to pick up on the similarities, but the experience is likely richer for those entering Frankissstein with some prior knowledge. I certainly found it so.

The format of the book is a mishmash of pieces that are not divided neatly into chapters. The timeline bounces between a fictionalization of Mary Shelley’s real past (the sections I preferred) and Ry’s present romance with Victor. There is also a smattering of related-but-detached quotes that crop up between sections of the story. It is a rather confusing format that can seem a bit arbitrarily divided at times, but the effect fits the topic- monsters built from real humans (in this case, Shelley’s bio) and a spark of creation. The parallels are obvious, but seem stitched together in fragments rather than sculpted neatly as a whole- instead of a gripping plot, it’s a series of vignettes that study characters and themes. Nonetheless, every single narrative shift had me excited to see what would come next.

One of the biggest changes between Frankenstein and Frankissstein is the new novel’s focus on gender. Winterson further blurs the line between life and death that Shelley grays in her original work, but then takes matters a step further by using characters that represent and support non-binary gender identity and sexuality to further her narrative speculation on the possibility of uploading the human brain to extend life through computers; the central question being: to what extent is our “life,” our consciousness, connected to our physical bodies? If we could project ourselves into any body or machine, would we choose the forms we were born with, alter our bodies, or abandon biology altogether? I’m not trans, so I can’t speak personally about the accuracy of the coverage in Ry’s character, but I thought his identity as a trans person was considerately handled in a way that showed Winterson had done her research. I loved the gender commentary running through this novel, especially from the unique mortality angle that Winterson tackles it from. I’ve seen some criticism for Frankissstein‘s political commentary hitting a bit too on-the-nose, but I thought the way everything tied to Shelley’s original exploration of recreating life after death kept it fresh and morbidly engrossing. I have never felt more aware of my physical body and its doomed fate.

“Medically and legally, death is deemed to occur at heart failure. Your heart stops. You take your last breath. Your brain, though, is not dead, and will not die for another five minutes or so. Perhaps ten or fifteen minutes in extreme cases. The brain dies because it is deprived of oxygen. It is living tissue like the rest of the body. It is possible that our brain knows we are dead before we die.”

The writing itself is excellent throughout- readable and engaging, and packed full of one-liners. I even laughed a fair amount. The future counterparts Winterson has provided for Lord Byron, Claire, and Polidori are hilarious and apt, and I loved seeing Victor as a part of this tale, right alongside his creator. Mary Shelley does seem slightly modernized (though it is worth remembering that her mother was a well-known advocate for women’s rights back in the late 1700s), but I think any liberties taken are clear and beneficial, a way of emphasizing how challenging Shelley’s life must have been and how the creation of Frankenstein, her own monster, might have haunted her. The account of her life depicted here is quite moving, as we see a young woman full of dreams weighted down with societal rules, responsibilities, and tragedies that would have been difficult for any person to cope with. The recap of her trials and tribulations provided in a first-person perspective brings Frankissstein to life.

Though I preferred the historical timeline right from the atmospheric beginning, I also appreciated the ways in which Ry’s conversations and experiences bring current political matters from the modern world into the text. Just as the scientific developments of Shelley’s time must have played a role in the creation and reception of her story (I’m flashing back to a college research paper, yikes), so too are the details of our time stamped upon Winterson’s.

“What is sanity? he said. Can you tell me? Poverty, disease, global warming, terrorism, despotism, nuclear weapons, gross inequality, misogyny, hatred of the stranger.”

Obviously, I don’t know Mary Shelley’s mind, but I really think this is a response to her work that Shelley would have been delighted to see. In any case, I know I am.

My reaction: 5 out of 5 stars. I want to reread this. I want to reread Frankenstein. I want to read so much more of Winterson’s work (how have I never read anything else from this author? I have been aware of her work and somehow just never picked anything up?!). I haven’t read enough of the longlist yet for a serious opinion of the whole or accurate ranking of my favorites, but I can confidently say that I will not be disappointed if this one wins. I certainly hope to see it shortlisted.

More of my Booker nominee reviews: My Sister, the Serial Killer, Lost Children Archive, Lanny, Night Boat to Tangier, and An Orchestra of Minorities.

 

The Literary Elephant

Review: Human Acts

Last year I read The Vegetarian by Han Kang, translated by Deborah Smith, which I found quite powerful and have been returning to often in thought ever since. This year (and just in time for the end of WIT month!) I picked up my second novel from this author/translator duo, Human Acts. Though quite a different work, I found it equally brilliant.

humanacts2In the novel, the events and impact of the Gwangju uprising in 1980 South Korea unfold in a sequence of interconnected vignettes. Dong-ho, a fifteen year-old boy, is the link that connects them all. After being caught in a violent government-sanctioned attack on civilians, the boy tries to take a more active stance in aiding the victims and fighting for justice. From here, the story leaps through the next three decades in an examination of the aftereffects of the riots.

“Why would you sing the national anthem for people who’d been killed by soldiers? Why cover the coffin with the Taegukgi? As though it wasn’t the nation itself that had murdered them.”

This book is absolutely brutal. Though I found The Vegetarian psychologically disturbing (in the best way), Human Acts is a very different beast because it tackles a historic event. There is no way to dismiss the horrors that these characters describe- though the characters themselves are fictional- because these horrors are born not from the imagination but from reality. I knew nothing about Gwangju before reading this book, but now I am positive I will never forget about it.

“What had proved most incomprehensible was that this bloodshed had been committed again and again, and with no attempt to bring the perpetrators before the authorities. Acts of violence committed in broad daylight, without hesitation and without regret. Commanding officers who would have encouraged, no, even demanded such displays of brutality.”

What impressed me most about Human Acts is the way that Kang focuses the narration not on the grisly details of the uprising itself, but on the physical and mental affects that result from them. We are told about deaths and torture tactics, but instead of wasting space trying to convince readers of how awful these experiences are, she focuses instead on how the characters try or fail to cope with what they’ve been through- which somehow makes it all the more awful. For example, one chapter follows an ex- factory girl; a few sentences sum up the worst of the trauma she experienced after being arrested as part of a labor union, but the chapter revolves mainly around her attempts to visit an old factory friend and her incapability of sharing her own story. This was the section I found most moving, though each contains at least one gut-wrenching moment that leaves an impression.

Throughout the novel, there is much focus on the body, though Kang never lets the reader forget that the villains here are human too- there is an incredible and unsettling message evident that cruelty is as much a part of human nature as suffering. We hurt, and we are hurt. It’s devastating to think that this might be the human norm.

“Is it true that human beings are fundamentally cruel? Is the experience of cruelty the only thing we share as a species? Is the dignity that we cling to nothing but self-delusion, masking from ourselves this single truth: that each one of us is capable of being reduced to an insect, a ravening beast, a lump of meat? To be degraded, damaged, slaughtered- is this the essential fate of humankind, one that history has confirmed as inevitable?”

Something I liked a bit less is the use of frequent perspective shifts. Each chapter highlights a different character’s experience, and many of them are referenced in different ways, depending on the chapter. In the first section, we follow Dong-ho, who is addressed in the second person, as “you.” In the next section, we follow Dong-ho’s best friend, who is an “I” telling his story to Dong-ho’s “you.” The factory girl is also a “you” in her section, though other characters use the first person “I” or the third person “she/he.” I thought some of these POVs were more effective than others, and found the constant changes a bit tedious and confusing. Ultimately, I am not sure the effect was worth the effort.

But that’s a small complaint. Overall, I found this an engaging read full of unrelenting pain and haunting beauty. It’s a piece of world history worth knowing about; I’m sure I’ll remember the lesson, but I don’t think it will stay with me in quite the same manner that The Vgetarian will; while Human Acts opened my eyes to a real event and a deep level of human suffering, it seems to me a  self-contained story, speculations on human nature aside. The Vegetarian, though less grounded in history, struck me as an inventive masterpiece of fiction with more widely applicable themes. It’s difficult to say I “liked” either one better than the other, or would recommend one more highly than the other, as I think they are quite opposite pieces of work. Both entirely worth the read.

” ‘The soldiers are the scary ones,’ you said with a half-smile. ‘What’s frightening about the dead?’ “

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. I should have picked this book up sooner. I believe there is only one more Han Kang book translated into English so far, The White Book, which I’ve already added to my TBR. I want to read it right away, but also I’ll be sad to run out of new works to read from her- at least for now. Unfortunately I don’t think I’ll get to my other WIT reads before the end of the month either, though I’m still planning to pick them up soon anyway; I need more translations in my life.

Have you read any of Han Kang’s work? Do you have a favorite?

 

The Literary Elephant