Book reviews

Posts tagged ‘Margaret Atwood’

The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood

When I made up my Classics Club list I had been working through Margaret Atwood’s books, so in a stroke of genius added The Blind Assassin to my list. Win-win.

The Blind Assassin‘s main characters are sisters Iris and Laura. The present part of the story was narrated by Iris as an old lady as she looked back over her and Laura’s childhood as the daughters of a rich businessman. The happy times ended when their father’s business failed and he encouraged Iris to marry Richard, who was his competitor. Richard isolated Iris from her family, then deliberately ran his father in law’s business into the ground. The tragic death of Laura several years later compounded Iris’ unhappiness.

Before her death Laura had written a novel which was published posthumously. In her old age, Iris was amused that Laura and her book were still revered by her readers.

Large parts of the story followed a historic affair between two lovers, which took place around the time when Iris was newly married to Richard. The man was someone Iris and Laura both knew and which of the woman was having an affair with him was deliberately left unclear. The man was a writer who told his lover pulp-fiction science stories about a blind assassin and his lover on a far-distant planet while they laid together after having had sex in a series of rented rooms.

Margaret Atwood’s writing in this book was as wonderful as anything else I’ve read by her. She mixed commonplace sayings and conversations with unexpected wisdom, used newspaper articles to set the time clearly in the 1930s and 40s, and the story within the story of the blind assassin and his lover became as real to me as Iris and Laura’s story did. Each word, sentence and paragraph taken on their own was perfect although I did feel bogged down around the middle of the story, probably because the story required ongoing concentration and I was already tired before I started reading this over Christmas.

This book itself is a chunkster. It took me weeks to read, which for me is a long time. Although I enjoyed the story, I was glad to finally finish it and can honestly say that I don’t miss the characters or their lives, although I had questions about why they behaved as they did, or in other cases, didn’t do what I thought they should do.

For anyone who hasn’t read this book but intends to, the next section of my review is made up of my questions which contain spoilers. Stop reading now if this is you.

Why didn’t Iris continue to write? Such a good writer must have had more stories in her. If privacy was a concern, she could have used a pseudonym.

Why didn’t Iris fight harder to spend time her daughter or grand-daughter? I understand that during the 1940s her lost reputation was enough to lose custody of her daughter but she was still had some power. At one point in the novel she showed that she was Winnifred’s equal in courage and clout. By that time Richard was dead so Iris could have told the world that Richard wasn’t Aimee’s father and reclaimed her child.

Why did Laura sacrifice herself for Iris? The sisters in Frozen are the only other sisters I’ve ever known who have done so much for each other. In real life? I can’t think of any one as ‘good’ as Laura.

The Blind Assassin was book thirty four in my Classics Club challenge to read 50 classics before my challenge end date of August 26, 2023.

The Testaments by Margaret Atwood

The Testaments is Margaret Atwood’s much-anticipated sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale. If you haven’t yet read The Testaments and intend to, be warned that my review may contain details of the story that you might prefer to discover for yourself.

The story begins about fifteen years after Offred, whose narration made up The Handmaid’s Tale, tried to escape Gilead. In The Testaments the story is told by three narrators, Aunt Lydia, who also appeared in The Handmaid’s Tale, Daisy, a teenage girl living in Canada and Agnes, the teenage daughter of a high-ranking Commander in Gilead. At the time Gilead and Canada were fighting over possession of Baby Nicole, an infant who had been smuggled out of Gilead many years ago.

Aunt Lydia’s story surprised me most. In The Handmaid’s Tale, she was the most powerful and feared of the Aunts, whose role it was to train the handmaids. The Testaments explains her background in her own words. Before the onset of the regime which caused her to lose all of her rights she was a respected judge. Along with other women of her age, education and status she was imprisoned and treated in a dehumanising manner before being given the opportunity to become an Aunt in Gilead, the only position a woman could hold and keep some autonomy over her own life in the new regime.

In contrast, Agnes had been born in Gilead and knew of no other way of life. She had a loving relationship with her adoptive mother but was thrown adrift after her death. When Agnes’ adoptive father remarried, his new wife had no affection for Agnes and brokered a deal for Agnes to marry the highest ranking Commander in the regime. Marriage to Commander Judd would have brought enormous prestige for Agnes and her family but was not without risk for Agnes as Commander Judd had previously married several very young women who had later died in mysterious circumstances. Surprisingly, it was Aunt Lydia who came to Agnes’ rescue by suggesting that the girl had a vocation to become an Aunt, which over-rode the marriage plans.

In Canada, Daisy was growing up in a way most girls in a contemporary Western world would recognise. Daisy studied Gilead’s current affairs in school but was unaware that her adoptive parents were involved in Mayday, an organisation that smuggled women out of Gilead. After her parents were murdered Daisy was smuggled away by Mayday operatives who told her she was Baby Nicole and as such had been hidden from the government of Gilead who were demanding her return.

The Mayday operatives convinced Daisy to return to Gilead as a spy. They taught her to fight and gave her some tips on how to manage, then sent her off as a convert to the regime while keeping her identity as Baby Nicole secret. When she arrived in Gilead, Aunt Lydia took Daisy under her wing and tasked Agnes with looking after her.

Aunt Lydia is by far the strongest character in this story and I would have liked to read more of her story and less about Agnes and Daisy, although their stories were vital to the plot.

For anyone wondering what happened to Offred after her attempted escape and what caused Gilead to fall, The Testaments has the answer. Most of the loose ends were tied up, possibly a little too neatly. The story is also enormously entertaining but for me it didn’t have the emotional punch of The Handmaid’s Tale, which was of course an extremely hard act to follow.

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

I first read The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood as a teenager during the 1980’s. The horror of this dystopian story has stayed with me for more than thirty years.

I decided to re-read The Handmaid’s Tale prior to reading The Testaments and I’m glad I did. I think I took more from the story as an older reader but despite considering myself to be older and wiser (!) I am still wondering what I can say about this book which hasn’t been said a million times before…

Regardless, I’ll start with a recap of the story which is narrated by Offred, a Handmaid in the Republic of Gilead (formerly the USA) in an alternate version of the future which started around the 1980s. Prior to her present-day life, Offred (her real name is unknown) lived and worked in the USA, and was married to Luke with whom she had a daughter. Her mother was a feminist who had fought hard for women’s rights.

Following an overthrow of what we would call normal life by a regime who followed an extreme interpretation of Christianity, women all over the USA lost virtually all of their rights. Offred lost her name, her job and all access to her bank accounts. She lost the right to read, write and to be educated. As Luke had been married previously, their marriage was considered void by the regime. The family tried to escape to Canada but were unsuccessful.

Because of a series of events including nuclear disasters, very few women were fertile so the regime divided women into categories with the intention of using surrogacy to increase the population. When the story began Offred was a Handmaid, a member of a household whose role it was to become pregnant on behalf of those who were infertile. The Handmaids had very little freedom and wore red to signify their status, along with bonnets that blinkered them. Offred’s name signified that during the time of the story, she was posted to the household of a man named Fred.

The wives in Gilead wore blue, to signify their status and the Marthas, or household staff, wore green. The Econo-wives, who were expected to carry out all household functions, wore stripes. White was for young girls and black for widows. ‘Unwomen’ are sent to the Colonies to clean up radioactive waste, a task which they will soon die at.

Offred’s third posting was to the home of a Commander in the regime. She told the story of her day-to-day life alternately with stories that provided a glimpse into her past. Offred was well aware that the Commander’s wife resented her, even though she recognised her as a former Christian television personality who had publicly supported the new regime. (Having said that, it is doubtful if the wife knew she would be supporting the practice of her husband attempting to impregnate their Handmaid as the two women lay hand-in-hand in the marital bed).

Offred was disconcerted when the Commander invited her surreptitiously to his study to play Scrabble, as contact outside of the prescribed sexual ritual was forbidden. Their personal contact increased over time until the Commander had Offred accompany him to a government brothel, dressed as a whore. Without any irony the Commander commented to Offred that men had always required a variety of women sexually and that women subliminally knew this and prior to the changed regime, owned large wardrobes to provide variations of themselves to men.

At the same time as Offred was seeing the Commander without the knowledge of his wife, the wife arranged for Offred to have an affair with their chauffeur, as she believed the Commander was infertile.

Things came to a terrible climax when the Commander’s wife realised that her husband and Offred had been meeting outside of the prescribed ritual sex sessions.

Most frighteningly, and something I don’t believe I realised the first time I read The Handmaid’s Tale, was that it was mostly women who were watching, reporting on and judging the Handmaids and other women in Gilead. The Handmaids were trained by older women called Aunts who were also responsible for choosing and carrying out their punishments. The wives and daughters had limited social lives and control over their households but their wishes could also determine the fate of a Handmaid. The Handmaids couldn’t even trust each other as some Handmaids were spies for the regime. Everything that happened that required blame to be attached was a woman’s fault. In real life, sadly this is often also the case too and women are often each other’s own worst enemies.

Many of the character’s motives, actions and outcomes are ambiguous which added to the sense of unease I felt as I read this story. I frequently felt angry, too, as I compared the female character’s lives with real life. Women in many countries still don’t have the same rights as men and probably won’t in my lifetime. Women in many workplaces don’t earn the same amount of money as men. Women in many households don’t have a voice. Women across the world have less educational, career, sporting, religious and political opportunities than men. More women are affected by domestic violence. Women have difficulty voting in some countries. I’m not even going to touch the controversial issue of women’s right to manage their own fertility.

While you never know what you will get from a Margaret Atwood novel, you do know in advance that the ideas in her novels will be shocking, far wilder and madder than you could ever have imagined yourself, let alone written down or been brave enough for others to read and judge what goes on in your imagination.

While I am really looking forward to reading The Testaments I will wait a few more weeks and read some books from other genres before I start it to let my emotions settle down again.

Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood

I included Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood in my Classics Club book list as a bit of a cheat since I’m working my way through her books anyway, but thought I might as well tick another book off my list.

Alias Grace is unlike any of the stories I’ve already read by this author. Several have been dystopian, while another two were so real I suspect they were based on the author’s own life experiences. Alias Grace is a fictional account of an actual woman who was convicted of two murders in Canada in 1843. The known facts of the case were used by the author to anchor her fictional story.

Grace Marks was a servant at a remote farm when she and James McDermott were found guilty of murdering their employer, Thomas Kinnear and his housekeeper, Nancy Montgomery. Grace was only 16 years old at the time of the murders. The pair were caught soon after fleeing to the USA and returned to Canada to face trail for the crimes. McDermott was hanged and Grace was sentenced to life in prison.

When the story began, Grace had been a prisoner for many years. By day, she worked as a servant in the prison Governor’s home, returning each night to the prison. The Governor’s wife and her guests were fascinated by Grace, and were alternately thrilled or horrified by having her in their midst. Grace’s beauty and self-possession added to their intrigue.

A doctor researching criminal behaviour came to Canada specifically to interview Grace. He sat with Grace in the Governor’s home as she sewed and tried unsuccessfully for some time to prompt her to talk about the actual murders, which she told him she had forgotten about. Eventually the doctor asked Grace to tell him about her childhood, which she did, starting with her abusive, drunkard father, her constantly pregnant mother and their battle with poverty and too many children. Grace told him her of her mother’s death on the ship to America from Ireland, how she became a servant and eventually lost touch with her father, younger brothers and sisters as she moved from situation to situation.

The doctor’s own somewhat messy personal life also became part of the story. Newspaper accounts of the crime, letters between the characters and poems were also used to tell the story.

Grace is a fascinating character and this is an intriguing story, which has left me with plenty of things to think about.

Alias Grace was book twelve in my Classics Club challenge to read 50 classics before my challenge end date of August 26, 2013.

If we were all on trial for our thoughts, we would all be hanged.

Alias Grace is broken up into chapters named for quilts, such as Ducks and Geese and Pandora’s Box, with pictures of the quilt patterns. I particularly enjoyed making the connection between the contents of each chapter and the name of the quilt patterns.

Moral Disorder and other stories by Margaret Atwood

I’m enjoying working my way through Margaret Atwood’s fiction, most recently, Moral Disorder and other stories, a collection of short stories from 2006.

The collection tells stories from different periods of the main character’s life. She is un-named until about three-quarters of the way through the book, when ‘Nell’ appears. I have assumed that the earlier stories are also about Nell, although this is unconfirmed.

The first story, The Bad News, introduces the main character and her partner, Tig, in their old age. They have developed patterns of behaviour throughout their many years together, one of which is that Tig, who gets up first in the morning and watches the news, is not to tell Nell any bad news until after she has eaten her breakfast.

The Art of Cooking and Serving is a story of Nell as a little girl willingly working in the family home and helping out her mother with her little sister until one day as a teenager she rebels, telling her mother, “She’s not my baby. I didn’t have her. You did.”

The stories feel so true that they could be autobiographical. The Headless Horseman tells of Nell making a costume for Halloween which alternately fascinates and terrifies her much younger sister and My Last Duchess of a class in school where Robert Browning’s poem is being studied. This story was one of my favourites. I didn’t know the poem, so enjoyed looking it up, but I also loved that Nell was learning life lessons, recognising the end of her latest romantic relationship and even more importantly, learning to recognise and value her teachers and the hidden values they were trying to impart to Nell and her fellow students.

The Other Place shows Nell as a young woman, moving often, changing jobs and boyfriends, and not seeing her parents, who disapprove of her lifestyle. Monopoly tells of the early days of Nell’s relationship with Tig, a separated father of two and Nell’s own relationship with Tig’s ex-wife. The title story, Moral Disorder, was another of my favourites and superficially tells of Nell and Tig learning to farm and feeling guilty that chickens they have grown (and named) taste delicious when roasted. This story reminded me of growing up on a farm, as whenever we had a lamb in the backyard Dad called the lamb Chop-Chop so there would be no illusions about why the lamb was in our yard.

White Horse has Nell as an adult, again caring for her younger sister. The Entities shows Nell and Tig moving house, then The Labrador Fiasco and The Boys at the Lab has Nell reunited with and caring for her parents in their old age.

The more I read by Margaret Atwood, the more I appreciate her stories and her wonderfully clear writing.

Surfacing by Margaret Atwood


Trying to understand what was going on in Margaret Atwood’s second novel, Surfacing, was a little bit like being underwater with your eyes open and trying to figure out what was going on out of the water. I suspect that was the author’s intention.

The story is set in Canada. The narrator, an un-named young woman, returns to her family home, a cabin on a remote island, to search for her missing father. She is accompanied by her lover and a married couple, all of whom she has met very recently.

The writing in Surfacing is good, particularly the author’s choice of words, although some parts are in my least favourite style; present-tense. My biggest problem was not liking the plot. I also struggled to connect with the narrator and I didn’t like the other main characters, although to be fair, I don’t think the author’s intention was to create likeable characters. Superficially the character’s relationships with each other are swinging and cool, (Surfacing was written during the late 1960’s or early 1970’s), but beneath the surface, they hold grudges and judge each other and themselves. There are undercurrents everywhere.

Canadian nationalism is an important theme, but the characters’ struggles with this went over my head, although I suspect Canadian readers would ‘get’ this book.

The remoteness of the location, which requires locals to be almost complete self-sufficient, is intriguing.

Despite not appreciating Surfacing as much as The Handmaid’s Tale or The Heart Goes Last, I’m looking forward to working through her novels in chronological order, since I love Margaret Atwood’s fearlessness in writing the madder dystopian novels which she is best known for.

The Heart Goes Last by Margaret Atwood


There is no way of knowing what goes on in other people’s heads unless they are writers, and based on the two novels I’ve read by Margaret Atwood, stranger stuff goes on in her imagination than what happens in mine. The Heart Goes Last has one of the most bizarre and entertaining plots that I’ve read in some time.

I haven’t read a Margaret Atwood novel since reading The Handmaid’s Tale thirty years ago, probably because that story completely freaked me out. In saying that, I probably should be reading everything this author writes, because remembering the plot for three decades is my definition of a good book. I expect I will be thinking about The Heart Goes Last for some time too.

The story follows an American couple, Stan and Charmaine, who in the beginning of the story are living in their car after losing their jobs and their home. At first, their America seems quite real and recognisable, although it is still not a place I would want to live. Australia is kinder to people who are down on their luck.

When Charmaine sees an advertisement on television for applicants to take part in the Positron Project, where she and Stan would have the opportunity to work and live in a home of their own in the town of Consilience, she convinces Stan to apply with her. They are accepted into the project and have very few doubts about going in, despite the fact that they are signing up for life and that for half of their time they will be prisoners in the town’s prison. After living in their car for so long and fending off other people who wanted to take what little they have, the Positron Project offered them security.

A year later, and Stan and Charmaine have settled into their new life in Consilience. They both have jobs and they are happy in their home. Stan enjoys trimming the hedges and mowing the lawn, while Charmaine revels in their home, particularly the kitchen appliances and fluffy white towels. At the end of each month in their home, they tidy up and stash their personal possessions into a colour coded locker in their basement, and enter the Positron prison, while their ‘Alternates’ live their lives in what is also their home for the next month. In prison, Stan looks after chickens and Charmaine has a job cannot be discussed or even thought about.

Despite the relative comfort and security of living in Consilience, Stan and Charmaine’s marriage has become stale and they both become infatuated with their Alternates. As they become obsessed with their fantasies, the strangeness of their world starts to come out more in the story, and there is some really weird and unpleasant stuff going on. The people running the Positron Project are clearly making money from the town and prison and their business is nasty. The sexual fetishes are not for the faint-hearted either, although some of them are very funny. I’ll never look at a blue, knitted teddy bear in quite the same way ever again…

The story itself is funny too, in a very dark way.

I was so caught up in The Heart Goes Last that the train taking me home from work arrived at my station and I didn’t realise. Luckily, my station is the last one on the line, because I could have ended up anywhere. Next stop, Dystopia Meadows?

I can’t wait to read another book by Margaret Atwood. I am grateful that she is unafraid of what anybody else thinks about what goes on in her mind, and is happy to share her frightening but funny thoughts with readers.



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