Tag Archives: “Margaret Atwood”

Van has finished reading… The Heart Goes Last by Margaret Atwood

11 Apr

Well, this one definitely didn’t end up anywhere I would have guessed at the outset. Okay, maybe in general terms it did (though by about three quarters of the way through, frankly, it could have gone anywhere) but the specifics! Just look at the marketing pigeon-holes it could cover: surrealist dystopian sci-fi political espionage jailbreak farce thriller. Believe me, it’s all in there.


Now it’s all done and dusted and I’ve had a moment to breathe, it strikes me the set-up is a bit Toytown. Ruby Slippers Retirement Homes and Dimple Robotics, Consilience and its TV Evangelist-style pitch. Doris Day and primary colours, the way the residents are herded and infantilised. Charmaine with her chirpy outlook and relentless non-swearing seems made for it. There’s a cynical sheen over it all that creeps up on the reader and as you’d expect with Margaret Atwood, where there is a garden rosy you know there’ll be thorns aplenty.

And what thorns! I guess when you’ve done Dystopia, and done it as well as Atwood, and as often, you really do need to up the game in some department. I could almost believe this is a game of Top Trumps the author played against herself.

Oh, they’ll never believe that!

Let’s do it.

Okay, but the next one’s gotta be even weirder.

You’re on!

It’s the lack of baggage, I think, that wins that reader buy-in. It may well be the strangest idea you’ve ever come across in fiction but the author believes it, and because the author believes it she has simply stated that that’s what it is, so take it or leave it. It’s an object lesson for scribblers everywhere: it might be the oddest thing you’ve ever dreamed up but in the world of your story it’s as every day as death and taxes, and who wants to hear either of those explained in detail?

It serves to make it a really funny book, too, though not underminingly so. It’s never gratuitous enough to derail the tension, and where it does stray close to that line, Atwood is there to drive the thorn home and nip that laugh in the bud. You find the idea of the Elvis robots funny? Well, how about the kid robots… Hmm, not chuckling now.

It’s a book to go along with for the ride. Laugh with it but feel the excitement too, the anxiety over Stan and Charmaine’s fate and the ever increasing tension as every thread is drawn tighter and tighter toward the climax. And when it’s all over maybe have a think about where your own prison walls are, and what’s on the other side should you choose to try and scale them.


The Heart Goes Last was published by Bloomsbury on 24th September 2015 ISBN: 9781408867785


You can find Margaret Atwood on Twitter @MargaretAtwood and on her website margaretatwood.ca


Van has finished reading…The Edible Woman by Margaret Atwood

23 Oct

I wonder how possible it would be to write this book today? I don’t mean from a technical point of view as such – I think if anything it would be a tighter affair, more trusting of the reader – I mean from a social/political point of view. In the edition I have Margaret Atwood described this story as proto-feminist, and it seems to me the term is well-chosen. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not even an aficionado when it comes to social or political history, and a long way from the tape when it comes to feminism. The book seems to come from a time when women, and I would guess young women especially, were on the cusp of questioning the lot that had been hand to them. It’s interesting how close to caricatures many of the characters seem – especially the male characters, though it’s an intention that works to advantage. How difficult it would be now to look back on that time and not inadvertently be knowing of what was to come.
Of course it was knowing, even then. How could it not be, written in 1965 by a young woman who must surely have been living this strange mix of new freedoms and old fetters? By the same token, it stands as an interesting marker in the sand. How many of these attitudes linger still today? It’s a double-edged sword to claim how far we’ve come when in some respects the response might be only that far?
These days character has become ever more important the books we see published, so we become used to feeling like we’re inhabiting the protagonist’s skin. Atwood’s protagonist moves from first to third person in this story and as a reader you feel that sudden distance, that shrinking away. It works to great effect as events become both impetus and destination.
Perhaps the most revealing point for me is that I can’t remember a single instance in the book, other than in the closing scene, where someone says thank you to Marian.

Van has finished reading…The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood

18 Mar

For the second time in her life, Iris Chase assumes an unassailable position from which to tell a tale. And how she tells it. There’s a palpable sense of the season’s march, the treachery of age in Iris’s chapter openings. We feel her reaching into the past, reaching for the people who are no longer there. She is on borrowed time – a troublesome heart – and she yearns too for her estranged granddaughter’s return. The people she does come into contact with, in the main, she feels she could do without.

Transition is rife: the World at War, social unrest, family upheaval, the change from girlhood to womanhood, marriage. And where she might have expected courtship there is none, parental protection there is only bargaining. Iris is not one of the shapers of this world. Even in the eponymous book within the book, the world is bartered and shaped between the lovers.

In the end there was neither love, nor justice to speak of. Everything is lost to Iris, even her granddaughter. And it’s Sabrina she writes for now – sets down her testament (as surely she must always have known). It’s a setting straight, a relinquishing of the fiction of the past – a reshaping. So much of living is blind, and dangerous – both love and justice, we are reminded, are blindfolded as they wield their weapons. But it’s not so much what we can’t see, but what we choose not to see which damages the most.

Van has finished reading…The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

29 Nov

Margaret Atwood and opening chapters. With no awareness of what follows, this first chapter could almost be what a friend of mine refers to as pink herrings. There’s a sense of sisterhood about it, of all being in it together. Even their minders, Aunts, are differentiated from the Guards, and you’d be forgiven for thinking the Aunts are protecting, rather than…

  How it impacts then on the realisation, so it seems at first that we’re in a world of women, controlled by women. How tenuous are alliances and allegiances. It’s a measure of how we trust, how much we trust, how far we’re prepared to go. It’s a measure of the fine balance of power and how it changes our perception of those we think we know. And how interesting, as a man, to feel for Luke’s dilemma in that fulcrum moment: He must believe she knows he’ll not abandon her, and yet he must know she cannot but doubt his stance – not perhaps because he is suddenly aware of the power he holds, but that she is acutely aware of the power she has lost. The imbalance cannot be supported.

  The planning and execution of the coup are frighteningly believable, perhaps now even more so. Ultimately it’s the patriarchy and the corruption that instil that sense of the believable, the norm. To have simply subjugated all women would I think have resulted in ‘an interesting story’ rather than excellent, believable and psychologically terrifying tale it is.

Are there any questions?

  How chilling it is that we can look back from the safety of our modernity and raise a sardonic smile at the barbarism of the past. In a world where oppression and repression are perennial weeds it chimes like a bell in the conscience: at least it’s not happening to me. Is this how we learn history’s lessons, rather than learning from them?

Van has finished reading…MaddAddam by Margaret Atwood

28 Oct

I wonder at what point in the writing process Margaret Atwood fell in love with her creation. Rakunks? Liobams? Mo’hairs? No, not even Crakers. It’s the Pigoons I wonder about. It’s no surprise – given the context – the anthropomorphism should register at some level with so many of these animals, but it’s with the Pigoons that a sense of warmth also emerges. You can keep your bouncy liobams and your swishy Mo’hairs, it’s the sheer wiliness, the burgeoning social mores of the big pigs that we feel the emotional connection.  Could you be forgiven for thinking that their stratagems might herald a truly dark turn in the closing chapters?

Margaret Atwood’s measured approach to the voices in this trilogy is something to behold. The uneasiness that descends toward the tortured in Oryx and Crake, the zealous kaleidoscope through which we find the God’s Gardeners in The Year of The Flood is evenly matched in MaddAddam with the interaction with the Crakers. It’s a fascinating view of what the careless word can achieve, and is of course anything but careless. I wonder how it would feel to know that I’ll likely think of Margaret Atwood now every time I hit my thumb with a hammer.  Oh, …

And then there are those tiny touches that linger in the mind. I found myself hijacked on the train when reading of ink made from crushed elderberries. How strange is the range of human emotion. I guess somewhere inside us all there is a latent yearning for the Pilars of this world…or the next.

Van has finished reading…The Year Of The Flood by Margaret Atwood

2 Oct

There’s something wistful about a sequel – any sequel – if you read it after the first in the series. The trouble is you can never approach it cold. It can never truly surprise you in the way the first book did; if it did surprise you it’s possible the surprise won’t be a happy one. You can’t help but bring your expectations with you. It’s like meeting a friend’s friend and really wanting to like them. After Oryx and Crake, which is one of the most enjoyably surprising books I’ve read, The Year Of The Flood had a lot to live up to.

I really like this friend of Oryx And Crake. It surprised me in the best way. It was different, but not too different. It shared my friend’s story, but from its own point of view. And it has a hymn that includes the word Australopithecus, which is bound to endear it to anybody who loves words.

We’re all here now, Oryx And Crake on one side, The Year Of The Flood on the other, our arms draped across each other’s shoulders. We’re waiting for one more friend of a friend to join us.

Van has finished reading…Cat’s Eye by Margaret Atwood

1 May

I’ve been on both sides of the school-age bully scenario; I’m not sure which made me shiver more, Elaine’s churning isolation or Cordelia’s needy wrangling. Both are undoubtedly spot on. This book is an uncomfortable journey through a tremulous childhood, and the latter-day guilty responses chime like a fine brass bell. There’s a reason they call them formative years. The games we play and the things we do as we learn to be adults; we tend to think in terms of how they shape us into the person we’ve become, but we rarely look at the fact that it’s what we bring with us as much as what we overcome that blinkers the way we behave when we’re older.

Here there’s a keen ear for the off-hand voice, the defensive, the closed-down, protective, damage limitation mentality. Each act, each choice is a venture into a possible world of pain, and in the closing line of the chapter Unified Field Theory the word choice for the denouement is supreme: a childish phrase for a child-like act of will.

As ever, Margaret Atwood’s ear for a concise phrase is something akin to a  frosty pleasure. ‘Scraped naked’ – imbibe the awkwardness