Review of newly read novels
As most of you know, I’m a prolific reader as well as a writer. Here are my personal reviews of three books I’ve read and enjoyed in the last month, October 2019, followed by a review of my own latest novel by a valued reader.
The cover of the book I found both stunning and intriguing. Accustomed to seeing the red cloaks of the handmaids, the blue of the wives and brown of the domestic staff, I wondered why the figure was dressed in green? As intended, I had to read the book to find out. On closer examination, I realised there were two figures on the front cover and three on the back. If you’ve ever doubted how important covers are to attract readers, erase those doubts. This bold, seemingly simple design, in black, white and green captures the essence of the book and compels you to buy it and read it.
Margaret Atwood has said that The Testaments was inspired by readers’ questions about the inner workings of Gilead, and also by “the world we’ve been living in.” But, as Jia Tolentino from the New Yorker points out, “it seems to have another aim as well: to help us see more clearly the kinds of complicity required for constructing such a world and the world we fear our own might become.”
With the “Me too” controversy fresh in our minds it’s easy to see the dangers of male-domination and women’s presumed position in such a society. The dystopia visualised in Atwood’s earlier book, The Handmaid’s Tale, is a possible future state in which a fundamentalist male-dominated regime takes control. It’s a society that can’t function without the complicity of women, the Aunts, who train other women to conform to the rules of the regime.
Of the three narrators in The Testaments, Aunt Lydia is by far the most interesting. She has been complicit with the regime, but has become disillusioned with the regime because she’s been harshly treated and this treatment changes her perspective. Her complicity with the commanders is only skin deep. She’s cunning. Years of experience have taught her how to make them trust her. She doesn’t just dream of change. She makes plans to overthrow the regime. She’s power crazy, ruthless, happy to be feared and envied by the other aunts and novices, determined to maintain her position at the top and activate change.
In, the previous novel, The Handmaid’s Tale. Offred has to conform to survive, but is brave enough to be subversive in her thoughts. She takes action in small ways, but she has no real power. Aunt Lydia has considerable power in this updated Gilead and fights to keep it and create change. She is able to take her subversive stance further than Offred, but is aware that if she manages to topple the regime, she’s likely to fall with it.
The other two narrators are younger women, one brought up under the rigid controls of Gilead, the other in the freedom of Canada. Atwood reveals how their contrasting backgrounds affect their attitudes and behaviour.
Atwood’s strength as a fiction writer seems to me to lie in her depiction of the characters and their inner thoughts. Her writing style is economical yet literary. If she has a weakness it lies in the development of the plot.
Spoiler alert. Don’t read on unless you have finished reading the novel.
Aspects about the plot that I have the temerity to question.
Why smuggle Baby Nicole into Gilead and allow her to spend all her time closeted in the nunnery-like seclusion of Ardua Hall, only to be smuggled out again with the microdot and, after a fairly uneventful journey, arrive safely back in Canada?
What a wasted opportunity. There is little tension or danger during Nicole’s stay in Gilead. Everything goes smoothly. The author gives Nicole no chance of seeing the excesses of Gilead for herself. Suggestion: it would be more dramatic if she had been captured by the Eyes and displayed as a trophy at one of those mass gatherings – maybe at one of the public punishment rituals. What an experience that would have been for Nicole. Aunt Lydia could then use her powers of persuasion to convince the commander that she is the best person to take charge of Nicole and keep her safe.
The journey back to Canada is, quite frankly, tedious story-telling. I never feel the girls are in real danger. Suggestion: they could have been intercepted by the Eyes at some point and used their initiative to escape.
It is all the more surprising that Atwood didn’t use more dramatic story-telling techniques such as those suggested above, as she is not afraid to use the tropes of genre fiction to keep us reading on with suspenseful page turners.
The ending itself, is satisfyingly under-stated. The revelations of the identity of the characters involved in the reunion scene is moving without being laboured or sentimental.
Does The Testaments answer our questions about the future of Gilead? It certainly makes a case for believing that the only way such a secret regime as Gilead can collapse is by the determination and activism of those living within its borders. There may be help from outside sources but collusion with those on the inside is vital. Only those within the power structure itself can see its weaknesses and know where, when and how to strike. A tip for current politicians, perhaps, when tempted to interfere with the internal politics of other countries?
Despite my reservations about the plot, I did admire and enjoy this book very much as did the judges of the Booker Prize that she shared with Bernardine Evaristo (Watch this space for a review of Girl, Woman, Other after I’ve read it. I’m looking to it as I loved an earlier of Evaristo’s The Emperor’s Babe.) The chair of the Booker judges said, “These books both have something urgent to say and they both happen be wonderfully compelling page-turning thrillers.’
I believe that Margaret Atwood’s award is well-deserved. The quality of her elegant prose and clear structure highlight the richness of her ideas and provide insights into our current world.
My Review of An American Marriage by Tayari Jones
An interesting dilemma
is presented. How long should a wife wait before moving on, when her husband is
serving a stretch of 12 years in prison for a crime, she knows he didn’t commit?
Celestial gives up on husband Roy after a couple of years of his sentence and starts a sexual and loving relationship with their best friend, Andre. They intend to marry when she is free. She tells Roy their marriage is over and stops visiting him, but doesn’t tell him that she and Andre are living together. When Roy comes out of prison earlier than expected, Celestial is confused as she’s made promises to both men.
The structure of the novel keeps a balance between the perspectives of the three protagonists, as they share the narration. There is a lot of back story about their family backgrounds and past experiences so that we, as readers understand what motivates each of them. Because of this concentration on the past, the pace of the novel suffers and the momentum is lost in the middle section. I find myself continually wanting to return to the main thrust of the narrative.
Celestial, Roy and
Andre are intent on doing what is morally right, but none of them are perfect. For
me, their failures and flaws make them credible and I am kept guessing about
what will happen. Without giving away the ending, I believe the final outcome
the author chooses is the right one for all three of them. There are enough
clues about the nature of both relationships to make it a convincing,
The fact that the characters are black Americans underlies the injustice of Roy’s conviction for rape and illustrates the prejudice that many African Americans suffer, but the main focus remains on the love story.
A compelling read full of compassion and wisdom. It’s not at the same literary level as Atwood’s novel, but it is an enjoyable, thought-provoking read.
Winner of the Women’s Prize for Fiction.
My Review of Less by Andrew Sean Greer
Less has been called “a profound literary romp” which sums it up neatly. The writing is of a consistently high quality, often lyrical yet also down-to earth with a good eye on the perils of money, power and capitalism in Western society. Pockets of wry humour shine through deeper philosophical issues, assisted by the tender portrayal of the protagonist, the modest Arthur Less.
This is a poignant, compassionate account of a man suffering a mid-life crisis. He will soon be 50, and he thinks his life will be downhill after that. His name is Arthur Less, appropriate because he considers himself a failure, both as a writer and a lover. It was difficult to live in the shadow of his older lover, Robert, a genius, who made him feel “less”. Arthur decides to leave his younger lover, as he believes he is curtailing Freddy’s his freedom, just as Robert did his. Less has had two loving monogamous relationships and finds it difficult to contemplate living alone forever. He’s a sad man who often feels like a lonely clown, looked down by others.
Distraught because Freddy is getting married, Arthur Less agrees to go on what he considers a minor lecture tour around the world to escape the wedding. Each chapter takes place in a different city or country and this creates the rather disparate structure of the novel. He’s running away but also searching for something. Each place he visits and the people he encounters seem to shed light on some of his inbuilt assumptions about himself. Maybe others don’t see him as the second-rate failure he thinks he is. He loses his suitcase, his beard and his dignity as well as his lover, but does win an award. He continues to grapple with philosophical issues. This often misguided, unreliable narrator is funny, likeable and, without giving too much away, deserves the happy ending the author has in store for him.
Much to admire in this compassionate portrayal of Arthur Less who is worth more than he thinks he is.
This novel won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2018
I recommend reading all three of these prize-winning novels, but now down to Earth. Don’t forget to read my latest novel, SUNSHINE SKYWAY, as well.
This review of my novel, is by Andrew Ng, a valued friend and reader of my work.
A thoroughly enjoyable read, the characters were fascinating, and one could identify with their emotional struggles and crises.
I also liked the way you pen about the Skyway and the atmosphere of the Everglades, capturing the setting beautifully.
For me, I felt that the most gripping section of the book was the shootout, it was a chapter where all the lives of the main characters were in balance, the reader is anxious to know the outcome. For me, it should have been the climax of the book, not the incest revelation, which could have come just before the Shootout.
I say this as I feel that the book has potential for cinematography, and a shootout climax would probably appeal to the audience.
But all in all, it’s a superb book, and written with heart and sophistication. I’m blessed to know the author personally.
My response to Andrew’s comments:
Thank you, Andrew, for your perceptive comments. I’m sure if SUNSHINE SKYWAY does become a film that the director will agree with you and tell the story in a different order with the shootout nearer the end.
I think maybe I was trying to be “a bit of a clever dick” and subvert the normal format of the thriller genre by putting the emphasis on Roz’s growth as a person. I felt she could only begin to change in a positive manner after facing her personal demons and she could only do that after the climactic scene you describe. That’s why the denouement of the novel is rather longer than in a more conventional thriller.
By the way, does anyone know a film company or director who might be interested in making a film of this book?
Last Word: Enjoy whatever it is you are reading at the moment. I’d like to invite you to a write a review on any book you like as a guest reviewer in my blog.