Not-too-distant Dystopia: The Handmaid’s Tale – by Margaret Atwood

Classic Literature, Dystopian, Fictional Memoir, Romance

Security and liberty. One is often sacrificed for the other. What measures, what infringements on our liberty would we accept to ensure our security – from terrorist attacks, poverty, unemployment, ideas that we disagree with – is sustained?

The Handmaid’s Tale is an answer. Gilead, the envisaged future of America, initially seems alien from our society; as the book progresses, however, disturbing similarities emerge.

Women are property, kept in the home as either elite wives, ‘Martha’s’ who do the household chores, or handmaids who must produce offspring. Offred is the handmaid in the book’s title, and the book is her story. She vividly describes her life before, during and after becoming a handmaid: her daughter and husband whom she loves and misses painfully; her traumatic yet nostalgic time in the ‘Red Center’ where the ‘Aunts’ (pious women who uphold the regime) labored to inculcate her with the virtues of being a handmaid; her hyper-controlled, mundane life serving her assigned family.

I developed a morbid fascination with Offred’s miserable life (Atwood’s writing is captivating and vivid). Often as Offred speaks to the reader, her narrative devolves into random trains of thought, revealing her mental instability and loneliness. Initially, for the cause of safety from terrorism, people sacrificed their liberties; in time, the authorities expropriated them and became a greater threat than the official fear of terrorism. The repression took two forms: against society as a whole, and much more so against women in society. Atwood unfolds the profound links between Gilead and our world gradually, until the Tale’s glaring warning can no longer be ignored.

Better? I say, in a small voice. How can he think this is better?

Better never means better for everyone, he says. It always means worse, for some.

In fact, the similarity is more poignant than even Atwood suggests, as Egyptian-American activist and author Mona Eltahawy describes in her NYT Op-Ed (here). In it she comments on the similarity between Saudi women’s lives and the lives of women in Gilead. The Handmaid’s Tale remains ever-relevant, thanks not only to its presence in modern-day patriarchal societies like Saudi Arabia’s but also to the popular Hulu series based off the book.

My Ratings (out of 10 As):

Plot/Story: AAAAAAAA (8)

Writing: AAAAAAAAA (9)

Pace: Slow

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Buy on Amazon (US)


A Unique Perspective: Nutshell – by Ian McEwan

Crime Fiction, Fictional Memoir

“So here I am, upside down in a woman.”

Intrigued yet?

When I first heard about the plot, I was skeptical. Although I have faith in McEwan’s writing (the esteemed author has written from various perspectives), a book narrated by a foetus sounded tiresome. However, after hearing the author himself speak about and read from his book at an event, there was no question that I wanted to read it (especially my signed copy!).

A foetus is just beginning to develop his first thoughts when he becomes aware that his mother and her lover (who he later discovers is his uncle) are plotting to kill his father. The book is heavily based on Hamlet, from names (Trudy for Gertrude; Claude for Claudius) to the plot itself, and sometimes even quotes:

Hamlet: “I could be bounded in a nutshell, and count myself a king of infinite space.”

Nutshell: “To be bound in a nutshell, see the world in two inches of ivory, in a grain of sand.”

Admittedly, if I hadn’t been told of this ‘influence’, I wouldn’t have recognised it – I haven’t read Hamlet. I also can’t say whether this is effective as a retelling, or if my lack of knowledge about Hamlet affected my experience. After doing some (limited) research, however, I could certainly see the resemblance.

Perhaps surprisingly, the least realistic aspect of this book isn’t the supreme intelligence of the narrator, but in fact the conspirators’ passionate – murderous, even – anger and resentment towards the offspring’s father. It is never explained why they, and in particular Trudy, feel so much hatred for him. Progressively through the book, I was confused about where the mother’s loyalties lay.

The deficit in character analysis (due to the narrator’s circumstances), which is such a crucial element in McEwan’s novels, lets the book down somewhat. Maybe as a result of this, the characters are largely caricatures – not credible, relatable, real. I only hope this is intended, portraying the foetus’ ignorance and inexperience with people.

Although McEwan’ distinctive rhetoric – including his dry humour – is apparent in the foetus’ voice, this is (for the most part) a welcome aspect. The narrator is not believable, but this does not take away from the book’s narrative or overall realism. Sometimes, however, long rants with seemingly tenuous links to the storyline crop up from nowhere, and it’s clear that these are merely opportunities for the opinionated author to express his strong personal views. An example is when he rants about self-sheltered university students and their destructive politically correct ways. I appreciate that an author’s book is their place to do what they want (including communicating beliefs), but this only works if it is appropriate and not dropped in at random.

Finally, the writing style is confusing at times, with action and commentary jumping around. Perhaps this was for effect, but if even if it wasn’t, it was manageable; it didn’t hurt my reading experience.

All in all, I enjoyed Nutshell – hooked from the first page, it is one of the better books I’ve read this year. Compared to McEwan’s other books (at least those that I’ve read), however, it wasn’t his best. The ambitious choice of narrator mostly paid off, although did make for an unusual (and sometimes lacking) read. Read if you love Hamlet and/or Shakespeare retellings, you’re looking for a ‘quirky’ book, or you’re as obsessed with Ian McEwan as I am!

My Ratings (out of 10 As):

Plot/Story: AAAAAAAA (8)

Writing: AAAAAAAA (8)

Pace: Slow

Buy at Waterstones (UK)

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Buy on Amazon (US)

The Taliban Shuffle: Whiskey Tango Foxtrot – by Kim Barker

Non-Fiction, Post-9/11

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, now a major motion picture with Tina Fey at its helm, is a foreign reporter’s account of her time in Afghanistan and Pakistan. It includes political commentaries, lessons she learnt and incredible stories – a lively mix of personal and work-related experiences, describing interviews with important political leaders and drunken nights out in the ‘dry’ Afghan city of Kabul. Through her time with US soldiers on ’embeds’, visits to villages, Barker reports on the lives of normal people – or as she put it, “the smaller stories about what happens in a country when the west rushes in there after being kept out for so long”. Her move to Pakistan halfway through the book offers another perspective on the Taliban and the ‘forgotten war’ – and clearly displays her preference for Afghanistan over its unbelievably corrupt, damaged counterpart (although it seems Afghanistan gives Pakistan a run for its money).

After reading this book, I gained a newfound respect for journalists, especially foreign reporters, who often risk their lives to deliver news; like many professions, the majority of journalists are passionate about their jobs. But I don’t think it was this that drove Barker in her ‘quest’; it wasn’t fast, emergency information that she really wanted to provide – especially as it was this that repeatedly interrupted her much-needed holidays! Despite her commitment to ‘reporting the truth’ and the buzz that comes with it, she seemed far more interested in the bigger picture: the long-term effects of war on citizens, and the problems that hinder the country’s progression. Perhaps it’s easy to criticise others, but Barker seemed especially talented at pointing out where things were going wrong in Afghanistan, with Afghans and Westerners alike.

I also learnt a lot about the complex tribal system of Afghanistan, which is an integral part of politics and life in the country. Similarly, I had a new understanding for the corrupt, volatile political landscape in Pakistan, with its destructive military leaders and over-powerful intelligence agency; reading about a place that is so different was quite an eye-opener. Reading from an individual’s perspective enhanced my appreciation and knowledge for the subject – far more than an impersonal newspaper article ever could. With her dark humour and satirical tone, some would argue that Barker isn’t your typical woman on an ‘Eat-Pray-Love’ journey abroad – but although I agree, her optimism and resilience are also apparent, and contribute to her charming voice.

As with many  books, and especially non-fiction ones, I was a little slow to ‘get into it’ and find myself wanting to pick it up; however, once I did, I relished the escape it offered and Barker’s entertaining narrative. It was especially well-written (which is maybe to be expected from a print journalist, but nonetheless), a funny, easy-to-follow ‘travel diary’ with sophistication and wit.

Especially after the story picked up, the book didn’t seem long at all (but because I read it electronically, it’s hard to say). A book for those looking for a perspective on life in 2000s Afghanistan and Pakistan combined with a good-quality travel memoir. Basically, if you like substantive memoirs then you’ll like this.

My Ratings (out of 10 As):

Plot/Story: AAAAAAAAA (8)

Writing: AAAAAAAA (7)

Pace: Medium

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Buy at Waterstones

Buy at Barnes & Noble (US)

Thanks to Angela at Wunderkind for providing me with a digital copy of this entertaining travel-memoir of a foreign journalist.