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Archive for the tag “margaret atwood”

The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood

Every so often I’m dipping back into Atwood’s back catalogue and I never fail to be impressed. The Penelopiad is a clever little novella, condensing a lot of what I love about her writing into a little over 100 pages.

The Penelopiad retells The Illiad and the Odyssey, from the point of view of Odysseus’ long suffering wife Penelope, narrated to us sardonically from the Underworld. Daughter to a king and cousin to the ship launching beauty Helen of Troy, Penelope was never able to truly compete, something Helen never let her forget. When she does marry the wily and smooth talking Odysseus, she is taken off to his island of Ithaca. As we will know, it isn’t long before Odysseus is sent to Troy and then gets a bit lost on his way home, leaving Penelope to fend off the homestead from hundreds of lascivious suitors keen for her hand.

I loved Greek Myth when I was a kid and I think at least a basic understanding of the Illiad and The Odyssey would help here. The core question of this book lies in the killing of Penelope’s 12 maids; in The Odyssey it is claimed that they were unfaithful and untrustworthy. Alternating with chapters narrated by Penelope, the maids appear as a chorus. These take many forms, such as poetry, a mock trial, show tune etc. The significance of a Greek chorus is interesting; they are associated with tragedy, which The Odyssey most certainly is not. The implication that the unjust slaughter of the maids transforms The Odyssey from a story of swashbuckling adventure to something much more sinister is interesting. The classic idea of female characters being either angels or devils is explored here; Penelope is very much a saint in The Odyssey, although this does not really reflect the real and complex woman who narrates this story. She can see her myth being written even as she lives, and watches with a sense of detached irritation from the Underworld as it develops after her death. If Penelope is the saint, the story demands female devils and, fair or not, the maids fit the bill. The Penelopiad seems to be about the rendering of complex women into archetypes, a human desire for a pleasing myth over a messy reality.

I absolutely loved Penelope’s narration. There’s a world weariness to her, a sense that she may now be impossible to surprise; she has been dead for thousands of years and some references to how she views the modern day are really funny. The Penelopiad is frequently very funny; funny Atwood is one of my favourite Atwoods. A lot of humour also comes from Helen, who is here rendered in glorious full on passive aggressive Mean Girls-style bitchiness. Odysseus himself is interesting; it is clear that Penelope did love him, as he shows her kindness and a superficial respect few others do, but he’s hugely manipulative and his motivations are quite clearly not be trusted.

I really liked this little novella. Atwood clearly understands the appeal of myth, but that doesn’t stop her from having a lot of fun puncturing it.

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Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood

I’m a big Margaret Atwood fan, but there are lots of her books I’ve yet to read and I’m trying to ration them. I first became a fan of Atwood through her science fiction like ­The Handmaid’s Tale and Oryx and Crake; I ended up studying the latter at university. I was pleased to discover that I like her non-genre stuff just as much. Alias Grace is classic Atwood in many ways, dealing with a woman in a situation entirely beyond her control, who nonetheless mucks through it.

Alias Grace fictionalises the true story of Grace Marks, a famous ‘murderess’ in mid-19th century Canada, who gained infamy for her part in the brutal murders of the gentlemen Mr. Kinnear and his favoured servant Nancy Montgomery. The bulk of the story is Grace, now in an asylum, telling the story of her life that led up to the brutal murders. The framing narrative is the visiting Dr. Simon Jordan, who has an interest in the insane and Grace in particular. Dr. Jordan interviews Grace, with the narrative shifting between Grace in the present day, Grace’s history and the affairs of Dr. Jordan.

Atwood offers no satisfying conclusions in Alias Grace. Her culpability in the murders remains ambiguous, even if the portrayal of Grace is clearly sympathetic. Alias Grace is written in a clearly 19th century Gothic style and owes a fair bit to the genre, although Atwood plays with the form and there’s a tinge of irony to the whole thing. There’s a strain of dark comedy throughout of men becoming obsessed, and clearly aroused, as Grace relates the darkest and most sinister parts of her story. They act horrified, but in reality they’re titillated. This combination of horror and arousal is something the best gothic stories engage with and we see Grace playing up to her audience. In her wonderfully matter of fact style of narration, she states fairly plainly that she is aware of the reactions her story elicits. There are several male characters in the story who Grace ensnares, but all become more fascinated with the idea of the infamous ‘murderess’ rather than the woman herself. Atwood is making fun of not just a general human tendency to prefer simple and exciting myths over messy realities, but also a specifically male attempt to strip women of their complexities and reduce them to one of those two classic roles; angel or demon. Violence and sex are entwined in how Grace is viewed; Grace herself is bemused by the whole thing and is just happy for anything which breaks up the monotony and drudgery.

Of course, as readers we end up getting caught up to, making us culpable as well. There’s an undeniable frisson and sense of excitement when Grace’s story nears the murders; we want all the grisly details too. Atwood holds back on indulging us. Alias Grace is also a compelling portrait of a place and time I’ve never examined before, with the sheer brutality of what it meant to be female and poor in 19th century colonial Canada being pretty tough to stomach. Grace herself remains something of an enigma, with Atwood cannily preserving the mystery which had captured the attention of the Canadian public over 150 years ago. Dr. Jordan is an interesting character, fairly callow and louche but with noble ambitions to open a more humane and modern insane asylum.

Alias Grace is a wonderful book from one of my favourite authors. Netflix are releasing a miniseries adaption in a couple of months, for which I am now very excited. Grace Marks is a figure who will lodge in your head, capturing the imagination as the real Grace did all those years ago,

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MaddAddam by Margaret Atwood

It’s pretty clear that Margaret Atwood didn’t intend for Oryx & Crake to be the first in a trilogy, but I’m sure glad that she changed her mind. Unlike Oryx & Crake, The Year of the Flood more clearly set up for a concluding story, and thankfully MaddAddam mostly delivers. Whilst not being quite as accomplished as the first two, it is nonetheless a truly excellent read, and a further solidification of Margaret Atwood as one of this generations greatest writers of science fiction (although I’m not sure she’d be too thrilled to be thought of as such).

MaddAddam picks up right where The Year of the Flood and Oryx & Crake left off, with Jimmy the Snowman wandering into the aftermath of Toby and Ren’s rescue of Amanda from the hands of the rapist Painballer thugs. Their respite is brief, as a cultural misunderstanding leads the adorably naïve Crakers untying the Painballers, and they flee into the night. Ren, Amanda, Toby, the Crakers and an unconscious Jimmy, near death following the infection in his foot he gained during Oryx & Crake, make their way back to the Maddaddamite base. Under constant threat of Painballer assault, pigoon attack and internal tensions, Toby hears from her lover Zeb the story of himself and his brother, Adam One, and the formation of MaddAddam and the God’s Gardeners.

In Oryx & Crake, Margaret Atwood created one of the scariest apocalypses that I’ve ever seen in fiction, terrifying in its plausibility and unique in its shunning of genre clichés. It’s interesting that writers who aren’t normally associated with science fiction, such as Margaret Atwood and Cormac McCarthy (The Road), have created some of the best dystopian science fiction in recent times. Perhaps it takes someone not too closely tied into the sci-fi scene to really avoid the clichés of the genre. The expansion of the world of the Waterless Flood in MaddAddam doesn’t hold quite the same impact as Oryx & Crake did, and doesn’t show such a massive contrast as Year of the Flood did in its portrayal of the Pleebands. The flashbacks in Oryx & Crake and Year of the Flood were about world building, about showing us what existed before this catastrophe, but MaddAddam exists comfortably in an already built world, and allows the focus to shift to the characters. That said, there are surprises, and a few of our pre-existing preconceptions about this world are torn down, in ways you really couldn’t see coming.

For the final in a trilogy, MaddAddam actually has a more relaxed tone that its predecessors, with the internal sexual politics of the MaddAddamites as focused upon as the core threat of the Painballers. Things ramp up quickly in the central narrative towards the end though, leading to a satisfying and gripping conclusion, which I had doubted was coming considering the laconic first two thirds. The flashback story is interesting and entertaining, but it doesn’t necessarily feel vital, with much of what we’re told already implied in the previous books. This isn’t so much a necessary part of the puzzle, as a final slotting of those pieces together, which leads to an oddly relaxed but extremely satisfying book.

Margaret Atwood is a really, really good writer. I can try to think of a cleverer way of expressing it but there isn’t one, she’s just really, really good. She is excellent at crafting a sense of place, has a wonderful knack for dialogue, manages to allow poetic beauty in her prose without it turning purple and can write incredibly movingly. The surprise highlight of MaddAddam for me though was it’s often warm and funny tone, particularly in regards to the Crakers, whose adorable naivety never fails to amuse and charm. Atwood has clearly become very affectionate to her most ridiculous creations, and they’re drawn absolutely brilliantly, becoming more than their simplistic role in Oryx & Crake might have suggested.

Toby is the clear central protagonist of The Year of the Flood, with Ren and Jimmy stepping back into the role of supporting characters. Toby is probably the most likeable and sympathetic protagonist of the bunch, so letting her be the core of the book was a good call. The oft mocked, slightly bitter Toby, filled with insecurities and fear yet projecting a tough exterior, is hard not to feel for. Zeb, the protagonist of the flashbacks, becomes a better fleshed out character too, and by the end MaddAddam becomes a book about the people, where arguable Oryx & Crake and The Year of the Flood were books about the world.

MaddAddam doesn’t quite soar as high as Oryx & Crake and The Handmaid’s Tale, but a book that I’d feared as pointless and tacked on is anything but, offering a surprisingly reflective, melancholy, warm and funny vision of a horrific future. Atwood’s future is a nightmare, but it’s a nightmare I’m going to miss.81SteV0BJtL._SL1500_

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