Hazel McHaffie

Margaret Atwood

The Handmaid’s Tale

Dare I confess to watching a TV adaptation before reading the book? Tut, tut, tut. I know, I know. I should have found the time to read it first, but, hey, I didn’t. Well, the subject matter appealed and my tbr pile is already threatening to topple over so what choice did I have?

The title in question? The Handmaid’s Tale, written by Margaret Atwood and published in 1985. It’s an iconic novel, sold in its millions, never out of print, and it’s just caught the eye of the multitudes again. Sales of the book are reputed to be up 880% on last year! I can believe it. The Handmaid's Tale trailer

Because the tale has just been serialised over the past ten Sunday evenings on Channel 4 and much hyped.

So was it all it was cracked up to be? Well, it’s a dystopian near-future look at an American community in a place called Gilead run along fundamentalist puritan religious lines. Pollution has rendered millions of women sterile, and officials are assigning fertile young ones to the high-ranking men – known as commanders – to bear them children. These brainwashed nubile females are all dressed alike in all-enveloping russet red habits and starched white wimpoles. Everyone is obsessed by one thing: conception. It hangs over everything; creeps into every exchange. From the robotically repeat greetings – Praise be; Blessed be the fruit; May the Lord open – to the common knowledge of the girls’ optimal fertility days.

But in spite of their unique value to the community, the handmaids themselves are hedged about with prohibitions, so repressed that they are even named as possessions of the commanders. Offred (literally ‘of-Fred’) is the narrator (played by Elisabeth Moss), and we are party to her rebellious thoughts as she goes through the motions of sexual servitude.

The act of impregnation in Gilead is known as The Ceremony. It takes the form of a sort of carefully ritualised threesome with the commander methodically doing his best to ejaculate into the handmaid at the lower end of the bed (state-sanctioned rape in essence) at one remove from his wife who cradles the handmaid’s head in her lap and watches the action apparently impassively from the other end. All based on the Old Testament account of Bilhah Rachel’s handmaid bearing children for Jacob ‘between the knees’ of her barren mistress.

And when Rachel saw that she bare Jacob no children, Rachel envied her sister; and said unto Jacob, Give me children, or else I die.
 And Jacob’s anger was kindled against Rachel: and he said, Am I in God’s stead, who hath withheld from thee the fruit of the womb?
And she said, Behold my maid Bilhah, go in unto her; and she shall bear upon my knees, that I may also have children by her.
And she gave him Bilhah her handmaid to wife: and Jacob went in unto her.
And Bilhah conceived, and bare Jacob a son.
And Rachel said, God hath judged me, and hath also heard my voice, and hath given me a son: therefore called she his name Dan.   (Genesis 30 vv1-6)

A taser-wielding, severe ‘Aunt Lydia’ keeps the coven of girls in subservience and trains them in their role, meting out dracronian punishments one minute, shedding hot tears for the girls she protects the next; and the legal wives ensure the handmaids definitely don’t get ideas above their station. They have one purpose and one purpose alone – as baby incubators for the ruling elite. Even a failure to conceive warrants horrible repercussions. And given the high likelihood that the commander is himself sterile, and the certainty that his wife is, it’s particularly hard to swallow. The tension is palpable, and only increased when the commander sends for one of them, or someone looks at them suggestively, or betrays an illicit emotion. The penalties for stepping out of line are barbaric – torture, eyes gouged out, beatings, hands hacked off, stoning, genital mutilation, even death by hanging or radiation sickness. Small wonder perhaps that the handmaids, with so much emotion suppressed, the victims of so much injustice, turn into raving vengeful murderers when they are licensed to punish a rapist. Making their later loyalty to each other when they have a collective opportunity to punish one of their own the more poignant.

And outside these baby-making homes, ominous black figures lurk and patrol, black cars with blackened windows glide into strategic positions, and the black shadow of something sinister hovers. Who can be trusted? Who is really in control?

It’s compulsive viewing although the violence and inhumanity in places left me feeling quite disturbed. And the horror of what’s really going on strikes forcibly when ‘Gilead’s children’ are paraded in front of a foreign delegation to demonstrate the effectiveness of this whole arrangement. I won’t spoil it by revealing more.

At once sobering and challenging but eerily perhaps, less unbelievable right now than in 1985 when Attwood dreamed it up. Why?

Because there are echoes of such a scenario in the news this past week in real life: reports of seriously diminishing sperm counts (down c50% since the 70s) resulting from a variety of sources in our environment and lifestyles (chemicals, pesticides, stress, obesity, tight underpants); figures that come from studies tracking 40,000 men. Couple this with the modern trend towards waiting till women are in their 30s to start a family and you’re looking into a future that looks suspiciously like Gilead! Or does it?

And then there are the chilling similarities to the forced marriages and honour killings countenanced by certain rigidly fundamentalist communities in this country today … Shivers run up and down the spine watching dozens of hands reaching for stones …

Whatever the strengths and weaknesses of the research reports, or the limits to real-life parallels, the lessons within the novel do challenge us today. Are we ‘too busy to stand against sin’? How far would we go to have a child? How much are we doing to protect our fertility, our race, human kind, our world? Difficult but relevant questions which make the story linger long after the credits have faded from the screen. Thanks, Margaret Atwood.

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More gems on writers and writing

I’m deep into my next novel at the moment so my mind is rather preoccupied. I’ve been experimenting with several different narrative voices, but the current one seems to hit the spot. The prose is flowing more smoothly; indeed I’m having to get up in the night to commit the torrent of thoughts and words to the computer. It’s a good feeling.

But the better the fictional life goes the harder it is to psyche myself back into the real world. A good time perhaps to share a few more assorted gems gleaned from my catch-up of literary journals during the winter months. Today’s snippets come from Mslexia (‘a journal for women who write’) and The Author (the official publication of The Society of Authors). In no particular order …

On writing and living

Katherine McMahon, novelist:  ‘When I was talking to biographer Hilary Spurling about writing, she said unequivocally: “If someone asks me whether they should become a writer, I always say: not if you can do anything else.” After all writers are by their very nature outsiders, watchers, not only of others but of themselves. There’s a touch of dysjuncture between living and writing … To be a writer is to contemplate one’s humanity in all shades from brilliance to murk. Living and writing: a dangerous, exciting, compelling combination.

Me: And satisfying and disturbing, and grounding and exhilarating, and zapping and invigorating.

On the definition of a writer?

Robert Hull, children’s poet:   ‘The question pops up each time The Author arrives. To be able to say “I published a book last week” or “I’ve a collection/novel coming out next month,” would be a good answer: “Yes, of course you’re an author.” Whereas (to anticipate) to say in 2016 that “I published a book in 2011” wouldn’t persuade anyone. In that five years my claim to authordom will have faded. …

But perhaps, if I’ve not published anything for a while, and am not likely to, I can still be a ‘writer’. After all many, many people are ‘writers’. They emerge from Creative Writing degree courses in their hundreds …

Evidently the noun is a problem. The verb makes less of a claim. “I’m a writer” says that existentially that’s what I “am”. But “I write” is both more modest and more accurate. Writing is one of the things I do. I also ride a bike, go to Greece when possible, do a bit in the garden, cook occasionally. I’m not thereby a biker or a gardener or a traveller or a cook. The verb fits, but the noun surrounds one with a kind of aura, intimating that the activity is all-consuming; it defines one. Which it can do legitimately only if it is all-consuming.

It is in a sense all-consuming to have to earn one’s living by an activity. “I’m a bus-driver,” sounds right; it can hardly mean that I occasionally drive a bus, when I’m in the mood or can afford it. Nor can I be a nuclear physicist at weekends. Not without making the neighbours nervous.

I do not need to be “a writer”. I can focus on the verb, on writing. I can make a psychological retreat from clinging to authordom to finding satisfaction in writing … ‘ 

Me: A comforting answer to a perennial question.

On the benefits of writing

Linda Kelsey, confessional writer:   ‘Sometimes I feel I don’t know my true feelings about anything until I write it all down. Only in the process of writing, it seems, do I get to the emotional core.

Me: That’s been one of the unexpected benefits for me of writing a blog. Helps me analyse issues and marshall my thoughts more carefully and succinctly than I otherwise would.

On the process of writing fiction

Susan Hill, journalist, broadcaster, publisher, author:   ‘Fiction is about putting yourself into someone else’s shoes and walking around to see how they feel.’

Me: Indeedy. Reminds me of the Indian proverb: Judge no man until you’ve walked a mile in his moccasins.

On the reason for writing  fiction

Gillian Slovo, author, journalist, playwright:   ‘… fiction can go places that nonfiction cannot go, because it can inhabit the field in a full-hearted way.’

Me: My sentiments exactly. I’m currently totally inhabiting the world of a family torn in two by a terrible car crash. Steer well clear!

On fictional characters

William Nicholson, screenwriter,playwright, novelist:   ‘I want to read about and write about people the author loves. For me, the greatness of the novel form is about going into the hearts and minds of people.

Me: Mmhm. Me too. If the author doesn’t engage with them, why should I?

On excellent literary blogs

Amanda Craig, novelist, journalist and broadcaster:   ‘I’d recommend … Cornflower for intelligent, non-metropolitan fiction reviews (cornflower.typepad.com) – and best of all, Lynne Hatwell for thoughtful, knowledgeable, kindly reviews and musings on Devon life (dovegreyreader.typepad.com): a model to which I think all blogs should aspire.’

Me: Hear, hear. Two of my favourites, too.

On promoting one’s books

Joan Smith, novelist, essayist, columnist and campaigner for human rights:   ‘The entry of showbiz values into the business of authorship means that some publishers are looking for “personalities”, larger-than-life characters they know how to promote, as much as writers with original talent … Increasingly, novelists need to be able to sell themselves as well as their books, a demand that works against anyone who is reticent by nature.’

Me: Tough on those who’ve been breastfed on modesty and humility too.

On connecting with the reader

Andrew Taylor, novelist:   ‘… despite all the evidence we provide to the contrary, the myth persists that authors rather than their books are somehow strangely fascinating and even touched with a sort of moral authority … through our books, authors have an indefinable but undeniable connection with the minds of their readers that gives us a curious status in our culture.

Me: I once gave a lift to a woman who, in the course of our journey, asked what I did. When I told her, she stared at me in open-mouthed wonder and murmured, ‘I’ve never sat next to someone who wrote books before.’  Nothing I could say would diminish her awe.

On meeting a favourite author

Margaret Atwood, poet, novelist, essayist, literary critic: ‘If you like paté, don’t bother meeting the duck.’

Me: I used that quote at my book launch a couple of weeks ago. And I hope it leaves you smiling today.

 

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The Blind Assassin

Another ten hours on trains, plus extra time on stations waiting for connections … another opportunity to read uninterrupted … what to take …?

Ahhah! One of those books that seems to permanently slip down the to-be-read pile. A (Mann) Booker Prize winner.

Sigh. Yep, I do try, but I often struggle with these big literary prize winners. Got to be in the mood (determined), with peace and quiet to really concentrate (when would that be, then?), and with a good reason to persist (a talk, an article, a bookclub session). So I deliberately created an incentive this time: my weekly blog.

I selected The Blind Assassin by Canadian author, Margaret Atwood, which won back in 2000. I picked it up in a wee shop near the hospital in Devon where my mother was earlier this year, but before I could get stuck into it, crises developed, and I spent all my time trying to sort out the muddle that is official provision for care of the vulnerable elderly.

Appropriate then that I should read it while travelling to visit her this week. (She doesn’t know me now but she seems reassured by a presence and touch, so I also read a bit while sitting holding her hand as she slept.) Cross Country trains were on my side, conveniently cranking up the air conditioning so that it was far too cold to doze off.

The Blind Assassin is off-puttingly long – 637 pages – and the detailed descriptions and slow pace would deter many a potential reader. But chapter 1 begins with: ‘Ten days after the war ended, my sister Laura drove a car off a bridge’ … Nothing much was left of her but charred smithereens.’ So far so good.

The narrator is 83 year old Iris Chase, who tells of her own life in retrospect, taking in major historical events of the 20th century – WW1 and WW2, the Depression, the Spanish Civil War. Interlaced with her story is a novel called The Blind Assassin, published posthumously, which makes her sister, Laura, a household name as a novelist. In between the spaces there’s an ongoing account of a 1930s clandestine affair between a married society woman and a political agitator on the run from the authorities, and a sci-fi story which the man recounts to his lover over the course of their infrequent meetings. And as if that’s not enough, the whole is punctuated by newspaper extracts outlining significant events in the lives of the Chase family. Phew! Thoroughly confused? Well, just think of the infrastructure Atwood must have needed to construct in order to keep that little lot sorted in her head and accurate on the page.

Some aspects irritated me, some were simply tedious (lots of reviews talk about the need to persist – hmm), but every now and then there’s a gem of a phrase that makes me wish for that kind of skill with language.

Picturing the dress her sister would have been wearing when she drove to her death: ‘a shirtwaist with a small rounded collar, in a sober colour – navy blue or steel grey or hospital-corridor green. Penitential colours …’

Getting clothes on helped. I’m not at my best without scaffolding.’

He gave his version of a smile – a thin crack in his face, like mud drying …’

Her hat was the same shade – a round swirl of green fabric, balanced on her head like a poisonous cake.’

The elevator was the kind that had a crisscross grille of metal bars within the cage itself; stepping into it was like going briefly to jail.’

Those moments made persistence worthwhile in my book. (Sorry, inappropriate use of idiom.) But I have to confess, overall I’m glad to consign this to the tomes that I’ve read and won’t need again. I think I’ve earned a thoroughly enjoyable tale next. Now let me see …

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