Review: Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments

Viewers of the Hulu series The Handmaid’s Tale might be disappointed to find that Margaret Atwood’s sequel to her 1985 novel, The Testaments, is not a continuation of Offred’s narrative, but a three-handed narrative of Gilead, fifteen years later. The end of both The Handmaid’s Tale and The Testaments include a transcript from an academic symposium set in 2195 and 2197. Professor Pieixoto presents both Offred’s recorded journal in The Handmaid’s Tale, and the written accounts of Agnes, a young woman raised by a commander and his wife in Gilead and who later becomes an Aunt; Daisy, a young Canadian woman who is sent to Gilead on a mission; and Aunt Lydia, a perpetrator who features in both novels.

Atwood has employed the device of a three handed narrative in earlier works such as Life Before Man (1976) and The Robber Bride (1993). In The Testaments, Professor Pieixoto explains he with his colleague Professor Knotly Wade have taken the three narratives of Agnes, Daisy and Aunt Lydia and have ‘interleaved in an order that made approximate narrative sense to us.’ He jokes that ‘You can take the historian out of the storyteller, but you can’t take the storyteller out of the historian.’ Pieixoto is inclined to believe that the sources are not fakes, much as he was inclined to believe the same of Offred’s account in The Handmaid’s Tale. This neat tidying at the end of the novel provides support to the coincidences throughout Atwood’s text, which sometimes requires the reader to suspend disbelief.

In Atwood’s earlier novel the character of Offred is not an active protagonist because she is fundamentally restrained by her position as a handmaid. The characters in her sequel are much more active agents, particularly Aunt Lydia, who uses knowledge as power to protect, survive and eventually reach out to the resistance movement. Some reviews have been critical of Atwood’s portrayal of Aunt Lydia in The Testaments and have claimed that Atwood attempts to redeem her character as a victim of the totalitarian estate. However, this is not so. It is not Atwood who attempts to redeem Aunt Lydia, but Aunt Lydia herself. Her description of how her rights are removed as a family court judge, and her torture and incarceration are indeed harrowing, but viewing her narrative as a whole, her acceptance as the role of Aunt can perhaps be explained by her canny ability to foresee the situation she is presented with, rather than being broken by the regime.   The reader must question whether she is a reliable narrator, at least in terms of her own self portrayal. She certainly has a misanthropic trope when it comes to the other characters, particularly the Aunts whom she regards with contempt, and in the case of Aunt Vidala, pure hatred born out of an ongoing power struggle. The reader must also question her part in the resistance movement and ask whether she is motivated by revenge, survival or even vanity. She writes ‘I am well aware of how you must be judging me, my reader; if, that is, my reputation has preceded me and you have deciphered who I am, or was.’ This self-awareness leaves it to the reader to decide if Aunt Lydia’s actions negate her complicity in facilitating the subordination and murder of women in both novels.

One of the surprising elements about Atwood’s novel is the use of dry and often dark humour, which doesn’t feature in The Handmaid’s Tale. Aunt Lydia’s voice is enigmatic and conspiratorial; Agnes’s voice, as a second generational Gileadean is naïve, and this is juxtaposed with Daisy’s voice, which as a green haired teenager from a fairly liberal Canada creates much scope for comedy in a clashing of cultures as the two girls meet. The three-handed narrative makes the novel quite episodic: as you read one character’s account you yearn to get back to the other character’s narrative. It is in fact quite a page turner and a quick read. From a literary point of view it might be considered an unnecessary sequel, but considering the zeitgeist of the moment it does seem necessary, particularly in a world where Populism is dominating world politics and in light of the #MeToo movement. Atwood’s Gileadean novels remind us that progress balances on a knife edge, and legal and social rights are removed much more quickly than they are gained. Ultimately, the novel is optimistic rather than pessimistic, because we know that Gilead eventually falls, but we should be aware that progress is never a purely upwards trajectory in any nation’s history. Be aware of bumps and U-turns ahead.

REVIEW: Elif Shafak’s 10 Minutes, 38 Seconds in This Strange World

 

Elif Shafak’s latest novel tells the story and demise of Tequila Leila, a sex worker in Istanbul. Shafak uses a plot device of Leila’s last memories and thoughts as her mind shuts down in the last ten minutes after her death. She has been murdered and dumped in a rubbish bin. From a lesser writer this technique could result in a gimmicky kind of narrative, but the beauty of Shafak’s writing ensures that this isn’t so. Each of Leila’s memories are introduced by a scent or taste from different moments of her life: the smell of lemons and sugar wax, cardamom coffee – all helping to create a real sense of place and time.

Leila’s story is terribly sad. She is brought up to believe that her mother is her aunt and her father’s first wife is her mother. A harrowing account of sexual abuse at the hands of her Uncle leads to a childhood pregnancy and miscarriage. Leila runs away to Istanbul and soon finds herself trapped as a sex worker.

Shafak employs a further plot device throughout the narrative in the first part of the novel. A supporting cast of five marginalised characters are introduced as Leila’s friends. To the marginalised these ties are more important than family. They include a trans-woman called Nalan who is unable to work in the brothels due to laws against trans people. Like Leila, she has escaped a marriage and suffers abuse; Sinan, a weak willed man and a childhood friend, trapped into a loveless marriage: he lives a double life socialising with this marginalised crew; Jameelah, a beautiful Somalian woman who had a Christian mother, but was rejected by her Islamic family for holding onto the traditions of her mother. She suffers from lupus and Leila cares for her; Zaynab122, a dwarf from Lebanon, who still holds on to religion and tradition, but with more humility than the society she is outcast from; and Humeyra, an overweight singer. The device is reminiscent of Mitch Albom’s The Five People You Meet in Heaven, although Shafak’s use of the technique is less of a parable and more of an expose of the lives of the underdogs in a patriarchal Turkey. Shafak describes the Istanbul these characters live in as not the one that ‘the Ministry of Tourism would have wanted foreigners to see.’

Against a backdrop of sectarian politics, communists against fascists, and a growing sense of religious hardening, these outcasts become even more the forgotten victims of the society in which they live. Shafak explores this in the second half of the novel as Leila’s friend exhume her body from the Cemetery of the Companionless (a real place), to give her the burial and honour she deserves. The second half is at times sad, but mostly like an absurd comedy despite the seriousness of the subject. This lightness is something that pervades Shafak’s novel, but in the days since reading it, the thought of Leila and the underclass remains, and in particular the awfulness of the Cemetery of the Companionless really leaves a feeling of something so terribly desolate. In her Note to the Reader, Shafak writes ‘The Cemetery of the Companionless in Kilyos is a real place. It is growing fast. Lately, an increasing number of refugees who drowned in the Aegean Sea while trying to cross to Europe have been buried here. Like all of the other graves, theirs have only numbers, rarely names.’ This note really grounds the subject matter, perhaps more than the novel itself. It calls for the reader to look rather than turn away and to see with compassion the nameless as real people.

Treyarnon Bay, Cornwall – Haiku Sequence

Small mussels in May

Cluster the dark granite rocks

Blue, black: day’s end light.

 

In pools, seaweed clings ;

Acid green Ostrich Feathers

Hidden by high tide.

 

Foamy waves crash, shhh!

Rip tides form along the rocks

Swirling and turning.

 

Tides run out to blue     

Pebbles roll on the beach like    

Fish flounding, gasping.

 

Sand sinks to the thigh,

A sandal lost in a pool,

A scream and laughter.

 

Rocks hewn by the sea

Veins, straight lines ascend, marbled,

Drawn by nature’s rule.

 

Black, grey, brown, orange:

The colour of minerals;

Rocks, richly endowed.

Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables: Adapting a classic

Victor Hugo’s classic Les Miserables, must surely be one of the most difficult texts to adapt for the screen, not least for its length, but also to the depth of contextualisation within its narrative.  For it is more than just a story about grace and law, but a whole history and cultural study of post-Napoleonic France up to the June rebellion of 1832.  Hugo’s digressions take up more than half of the book.  His digressions range from a study of the battle of Waterloo, the architecture and rebuilding of Paris to a history of the networks of sewers beneath the streets of Paris.  The digressions may not seemingly move the plot forward, but that is not to say that they are superfluous.  The digressions act as a context to the story of Jean Valjean and Inspector Javert and the multigenerational tensions between the idealistic and progressive Marius and his friends at the ABC Club and his royalist reactionary grandfather.

For Hugo, Waterloo is seen as a pivotal moment in history, where the old order re-established itself as the ruling class in an anachronistic attempt to do away with the revolutionary spirit and persons that had existed in France since the revolution of 1789.  But as Hugo astutely portrays, the revolutionary spirit existed as an undercurrent in France and was never completely eradicated.  In Hugo’s novel, his study of Waterloo (1815) is presented after his initial introduction of Jean Valjean (1817).  Andrew Davies chose to make the aftermath of Waterloo the opening scene of the 2018 television series.  Davies’ linear approach to the narrative makes sense and enables him to present Jean Valjean’s release from prison and Fantine’s seduction in the same timeframe.  It also allows Thenardier (brilliantly portrayed by Adeel Akhtar) to enter the frame of the narrative right from the start, as he both robs and saves Pontmercy’s life, providing a plot strand that becomes crucial later on.

Despite Davies’ ironing out of the timeline of Hugo’s text, and its relative faithfulness compared to other productions, it does at times feel rushed, despite being six hours long in total. The seduction of Fantine is faithfully presented, yet her final demise into degradation does not do justice to the sheer frustration and distress experienced by the character in the novel as she is forced into debt and shunned by society, and unable to work when Valjean dismisses her.  The events are in Davies’ script, but without the inner consciousness of Hugo’s characterisation, the actions of both Valjean and Fantine seem more plot driven than a study of grace, forgiveness and redemption.  Although Tom Hooper’s adaptation of Cameron Mackintosh’s musical misses much of this plot, the ultimate ruin of Fantine through the song ‘I Dreamed a Dream’ is much more convincing.  In a mere four minutes the audience feels Fantine’s pain in what surely is one of the highlights of the musical, not least because we are shocked to see the usually classically beautiful Anne Hathaway, shorn and toothless during a heart wrenching performance, but because the lyrics portray Fantine’s regret and disappointments in a way that would be too artificial for a television script.

The missing inner consciousness of the characters in the series is the biggest problem with Davies’ production.  It perhaps is an unresolvable issue. It is understandable that the digressions about battles, the history of Paris, the design of the sewers, the history of a cloistered Abbey, and an in depth study of the goodness of a parish priest should be sacrificed to drive the screenplay forward, but Hugo’s lengthy descriptions of the motivations of his characters is also sacrificed, although admittedly perhaps too difficult to portray in a television drama.  Jean Valjean’s realisation of divine grace and Javert’s blinkered ability to accept grace in place of law suffer as a result.  Javert’s suicide in particular seems very hollow without the context of the novel, or without having first viewing the musical.  Comments aside about Russell Crowe’s singing abilities, when Javert sings in the musical ‘but mine is the way of the Lord / Those who follow the path of righteousness / shall have their reward …’ the music reaches such a crescendo that the audience is led to an almost Aristotlean purging of emotions.  The suicide might call for a slight suspension of disbelief, but the orchestration certainly helps the audience achieve this.

There are many good things about the television series: the cast including Dominic West, Olivia Coleman and David Oyelowo to name a few; the settings and costumes and the accessibility of a classic tale that might otherwise go undiscovered by the masses, but neither the series nor the musical really do justice to Hugo’s encyclopaedic text.  It may take approximately seventy hours to read, but it is well worth the commitment.

Les Miserables by Victor Hugo (trans. Norman Denny, Penguin Clothbound Classics)

Les Miserables (2012) (dir. Tom Hooper)

Les Miserables (2018) (adaptation. Andrew Davies, dir. Tom Shankland)

The Evolution of Monsters

T-Rex, that Maastrichtian dinosaur:

He could swallow small prey in just one bite,

Although some say he was a herbivore,

Um, no he was a bone crunching, flesh ripping monster of might

Hunting through the glades of North America’s shore

Abominable creature, causing such fright!

Was it the Ice Age that killed of these beasts?

Or barred from the ark lest Noah’s clan be his feast?

 

What lurks amongst the dust under the bed?

Spiders and goblins and giants and ghosts.                    

Keep on the light! The dark fills me with dread:

Monsters will catch me and eat me like toast

Daren’t close my eyes lest I wake up dead!

O Lord protect me, O heavenly host!

These monsters flee with the blinkers of age:

The real monsters are found on the world’s stage!

 

The Thirties was an awfully sad time,

Nationalism and hatred was rife.

Hitler and Stalin were both in their prime.

Today Donald and Kim cause so much strife,

So far rhetoric is their biggest crime:

Words become actions and a threat to life!

Both ages teach us a lesson most clear:

Beware dodgy hair and moustaches my dear!

 

Most pressing to me is Churchill’s Black Dog,

He pounces and growls when I am most still,

Renders me gloomy, my mind in a bog.

Idleness, doubt and the blues make me ill,

A monster most real, to rid is a slog –

Even the brightest day is grey, I feel.

Focus and Diligence will beat the glum:

The dog flees with a sharp kick up the bum!

Ode to the Road

Step by step I travel on the open road,

Called life, an unravelling episode:

Some days the sun shone; others, the wind blowed,

Some days I could not walk due to my workload,

My in-tray was a shock! it overflowed,

I longed to be out, in the air, on the road.

 

The path led far and wide: an uncertain road.

Past streams and rivers that fastly flowed,

Eyed only from the riverbank by a speckled toad

Ribbitting a secret language that only he knowed

Sat in his muddy kingdom, his waterlogged abode,

As I travelled along my journey’s road.

 

This is my path, this is my road,

I could fly, but money would have to be borrowed,

To apply you give your account number and sort code

Put your address down, and then the post code

Debt makes me unsettled, a feeling of forebode

And debt will weigh me down on the long steep road.

 

The River follows the strait of the road,

Men speed past, a whole boatload

Racing, their oars strike the water as they rowed

And the sweet smell of grass on the bank, freshly mowed

The rowers never stopped, they never slowed

As I walk along my solitary road.

 

By foot is the best for my amble on the road,

A car can break down and needs to be towed

The engine goes with a hiss and a bang, it explodes,

Car troubles make my heart sink and my spirit implode

And cars rust, in the rain they slowly erode

No, I will wear out my shoes on the stoney road.

 

I don’t know where I’m going on this road

Many times I have stopped to ponder a cross-road

And ended up lost, send a message by Morse-code!

But does anyone know where they’re going? Truth be told!

But we plough on in summer and huddled over when it snowed

We each forge our own path on the long and undetermined road.