The Testaments by Margaret Atwood.


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I am a lifelong Atwood fan, but she blows hot and cold (in this case, I’d say, warm).

I love her sci-fi and future-gazing stuff most, but I also was mesmerised by The Blind Assassin and Alias Grace.

Some of her more hippy stuff leaves me a bit cool.

This, the 35 years later follow up to The Handmaid’s Tale (THT), bagged her her second Booker Prize (shared) but, amazingly THT wasn’t the other, it was the aforementioned Blind Assassin.

She wrote this, the follow up to THT in response to endless requests from fans to explain how THT played out and decided to make it both a prequel (from Aunt Lydia’s point of view) and a sequel (from Baby Nicole’s point of view – Ofred’s daughter that she smuggled out of Gilead at the end of THT).

Another key character shares the storytelling duties but I shall leave that to you to find out who it is, if you care to indulge.

It’s very different to THT (and less satisfying as a result) because what made THT such a treat was the shock and the graphic detail in which Atwood brought her excellent brand of feminism to a dystopian tale that was truly horrifying.

The Testaments is a completely different vehicle.  She’s done the shock: this time she’s simply telling a story, a thriller really, to explain what lay behind THT.

Gilead is a key character in the plot.  It’s the state that has created these vile, corrupt, religious extremist men and it turns out that far from being the worst enforcer imaginable in Gilead Aunt Lydia is, in fact, a rather more complex, and sympathetic, character.

Essentially Lydia has realised that the concept of Gilead has gone too far.  It has run away with itself and it’s time for some reparation, how this is carried out is both complex and, at times, confusing (particularly in the first half of the novel).

It gradually unfolds as a rip-roaring story, well told, but for me it lacks the terrifying set pieces that makes THT so brilliant.  It slowly becomes a page-turner but that, for me, isn’t what makes prize-winning writing.

Atwood has a real ability to personify her characters, and the novel benefits greatly from most of its readers (surely) having watched Ann Dowd’s awesome portrayal of Aunt Lydia on MGM TV’s outstanding THT.

Atwood’s ability to switch character from niaive wife-to-be, to angsty teenage rebel, to elderly overseer is notable, but some of the naivety of the characters’ talk, written in a first person vernacular, renders elements of the book quite simplistic and, so, less engaging than it might have been if written in the third person.

Don’t get me wrong, this is a good book, but is it Booker winning standard?

Not in my book.

 

Books of the year


It was a slow year for me. I can’t have read more than a dozen books in all, but very few duffers came my way, indeed I think the Mrs may have out-read me and will no doubt post her own best-of by close of play today.

However many of the best books I read were recommended by Ian Dommett, so he goes to the top of my critics list.

In no particular order my favourite reads of the year were.

The Handmaids Tale by Margaret Atwood.

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In truth this probably wins by a nose. The fact that it was written in 1985 is a strength as it shows off her perceptiveness even better than if one read it at the time of its release. Is it her best book? Hard to say as she is such a brilliant writer, but it certainly sits alongside Oryx and Crake, The Robber Bride, Alias Grace and he Blind Assassin. All magnificent.

You’ll find my full review here if you are interested.

Then We came to The End by Joshua Ferris

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I predict this will be a monster in paperback. It’s been on many year end lists this year and so should get the reviews it deserves when it comes out in PB in 2008. I think it’s slated for a movie too, although the mystery that is implicit in its writing will probably be diluted on screen. I reviewed it here.

The Damned Utd byDavid Peace

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My all time favourite sports book. It’s a novel but reads like a Biography od Brian Clough in his 43 days as manager of Leeds Utd. Not a happy experience. It is frightening how out of control Cloughie was. So good was it that I asked for, and recieved, “provided you don’t Kiss me, 20 Years with Brian Clough” for my Christmas. I’m really looking forward to that. Anyway I reviewed David Peace here. Highly recommended.

An Occurance at Owl Creek by Ambrose Bierce

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It’s just a short story but it’s packed with drama and a brilliant twist.  Read more here.

 The Virgin Suicides by Jeffery Eugenides

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I was blown away by this.  Far superior (aren’t they all) to the movie; it gets right under your skin in a very odd way.  But he’s a very odd writer.  My mother read this and his other masterpiece, Middlesex, on my recommendation and loved both of them.  More here.

The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins

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This is an interesting but overwritten and ultimately pompous diatribe against the existence of God.  Nevertheless, until he starts getting overly political about it all it is a very interesting essay and worthy of reading for anyone who has any interest in the existence of god(s).  Read more here.

 Auchwitz by Laurence Rees

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I was gripped by this book and I also liked the BBC Drama later in the year that depicted the liberation of Auchwitz.  Not by the same writer.

It’s a detailed account of the concept behind Auchwitz and throws the net of Nazi guilt far wider than Hitler.  Well written and absorbing it is, despite its gruesome content, a compelling read. 

 On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan

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Great, but not his greatest.  I wrote an overly glowing review of this on completion, but, in hindsight, it’s a bit style over content.  Still beats most of the muck that gets published though.

Agent Zig Zag by Ben Macintyre

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If this was a novel it would be rejected on grounds of ludicracy.  It is in fact, the true life account of an English Double agent who crossed sides more often than Michael Stewart.  It’s real boys own stuff and a splendid read.  What ho!