The Gathering – Anne Enright

Book #9b

Reviewer: Ms Oh Waily


TG

Published in 2007, this novel won the Man Booker Prize in the same year and two further Irish book awards the following year.

Set predominantly in Dublin, the narrator is one of the large Hegarty clan, Veronica.  She starts the winding tale with a wistful desire to revisit a specific time in her childhood,

I would like to write down what happened in my grandmother’s house the summer I was eight or nine, but I am not sure if it really did happen.

And that is the beginning of a long, slow, meander through current day events, Veronica’s memories, thoughts and imaginings.

The main story begins with Veronica visiting her mother in order to tell her that her older brother Liam has died.  Veronica gets this duty from being the “the careful one” and because she is “the one who loved him most” of the siblings.
From this point on, the narrative jumps from the current day to her memories to her imagination and back again.  She spends a lot of time musing about her grandparents, Ada and Charlie, and their contemporary Lamb Nugent. She also recalls many aspects of her childhood and reflects on the way her family was, and how that plays out to their individual present day situations, including Liam’s manner of death.

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The Handmaid’s Tale – Margaret Atwood

Book #242

Reviewer: Ms Oh Waily


THT

The Handmaid’s Tale is a dystopian novel, published in 1985, which won the Arthur C. Clarke Award and the Governor General’s Award.

The setting is the near future in the USA.  Our narrator is a Handmaid called Offred.  We are introduced to the current state of the world through Offred’s eyes, and via her memories in flashback we are given glimpses of how the USA becomes the Republic of Gilead.

Following a bloody coup the government of the USA is taken over by a group called the ‘Sons of Jacob’.  This signals the beginning of a strict, military based theocratic society.  Offred is old enough to remember what life was like prior to the coup when she had a husband, a daughter and a job.  By the time the narrative of the story begins that life is a thing of the past, and she is now a Handmaid valued only for her functioning ovaries and reproductive abilities.

Society is now defined by roles and women are now kept uneducated and forbidden to read. They are now totally under control of the state with pretty much no rights, even to the point of being assigned to men.

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Written on the body – Jeanette Winterson

Book #154

Reviewer: Ms Oh Waily


WotB

This is the second of four books by Jeanette Winterson to be reviewed here at the 1001 Books list.  The first was Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit.

Having read and reviewed Oranges nearly three years ago now, it’s been a while since I was last immersed in Ms Winterson’s prose.  And what prose it is!

The novel is a love story, of sorts.  Erotic in parts, thoughtful in others. Humour is threaded throughout, as well as odd bits of poignancy.
It is told in first person, and as such gives us access to the narrator’s thoughts and feelings, as well as their experiences.   What it doesn’t detail, in any way is their gender, age, name or anything actually identifiable other than their work as a Russian translator.

What we do know about the narrator is that they are a lifelong philanderer, who has a disregard for marriage and a penchant for choosing to be *the other person* to married women.  After a particularly bad relationship experience with Bathsheba, the narrator’s dentist, they swear off their pattern of behaviour and choose a steady, unmarried partner – Jacqueline.

Unfortunately this does not work out well, both with the narrator’s temperament and then with the appearance of Louise, a pre-Raphaelite beauty from Australia.  They fall head over heels for this, once again, married woman.  The path ahead is not a smooth one, but the prose most certainly is.

Humorous passages are found when the narrator retells stories of previous lovers.

 I had a girlfriend once who was addicted to starlit nights.  She thought beds belonged in hospitals. Anywhere she could do it that wasn’t pre-sprung was sexy.  Show her a duvet and she switched on the television.  I coped with this on campsites and in canoes, British Rail and Aeroflot.  I bought a futon, eventually a gym mat.  I had to lay extra-thick carpet on the floor.  I took to carrying a tartan rug wherever I went, like a far-out member of the Scottish Nationalist Party.  Eventually, back at the doctor’s for the fifth time having a thistle removed, he said to me, ‘You know, love is a very beautiful thing but there are clinics for people like you.’  Now, it’s a serious matter to have ‘PERVERT’ written on your NHS file and some indignities are just a romance too far.

And, of course you won’t want to miss a similar little story about the anarcha-feminist girlfriend, Inge, and her semtex.

But the vast majority of the novel is devoted to waxing lyrical about love, sex and sensuality.  Some is blunt, but most is carried away to intense descriptions of love, lust and admiration for a lover and their body.

I didn’t only want Louise’s flesh, I wanted her bones, her blood, her tissues, the sinews that bound her together. I would have held her to me though time had stripped away the tones and textures of her skin. I could have held her for a thousand years until the skeleton itself rubbed away to dust.

It’s a really interesting novel, especially the aspect of the un-gendered narrator.  For me, I found myself constantly wondering… were they male or female?  And then I found myself wondering… does it matter?  Even a week or so after finishing the book, I’m unsure that it does matter, but it certainly is something to think about.  Perhaps it is a gender parallel of the tendency to think of characters as white unless otherwise described in novels.  A tendency to need to box us in to our gender binary.

I’d love to hear what you thought of this novel and the ‘almost invisible, other than their thoughts and feelings’ narrator.

Happy reading !

Sense and Sensibility – Jane Austen

Book #940

Reviewer: Ms Oh Waily


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After visiting the  Regency world by re-reading Emma and reviewing it here at the end of last year, I thought I would continue to reacquaint myself with the four Jane Austen novels that remain to be reviewed.

You might remember that in my review of Emma I confessed to being an Austen fan from a young age but that time and *maturity* had altered some of my enjoyment of her work.   Sense and Sensibility continued this trend for me.

This is the first of Austen’s published works; it is set in the 1790s, when it was originally written, and follows the two Dashwood sisters.

Elinor and Marianne Dashwood are daughters of their father’s second marriage, and when he dies their elder brother from the previous marriage takes over the family home, Norland.  Like many women of the time, they are solely reliant on his good graces and a meagre amount of their own money on which to keep themselves.  In Austen’s usual style their step-brother John is influenced by his greedy wife, Fanny, and chooses to settle nothing on them.   Instead, they and their mother are treated rather like unwelcome guests in what had been their own home.

While Mrs Dashwood is searching for a suitable, affordable property for her family to remove to Fanny’s brother, Edward Ferrars, joins the household.  It becomes clear that he and Elinor form an attachment over the time he is with them.  Both are reserved, but it is still obvious to those around them.  Unfortunately, the Ferrars family are bent on his ‘becoming’ someone important and that results in Fanny speeding the Dashwood’s exit from Norland by insinuating that Elinor is, in essence, gold-digging.  Fortunately for the ladies, a distant cousin comes to the rescue with an affordable cottage on an estate in Devonshire, far removed from Norland.  They grasp it and move out with all haste.

Mrs Dashwood, Elinor, Marianne and younger sister Margaret, remove to Devonshire and Barton Cottage.  They are under the attentive eye of their cousin, Sir John Middleton. He, his wife, his mother-in-law Mrs Jennings and Colonel Brandon, a friend of Sir John’s make up the party at Barton Park.
After a short while it becomes clear that Colonel Brandon forms an attachment for Marianne, but she considers him to be an old bachelor and of no attraction for anyone, least of all herself.
Mrs Jennings, a well-off widow who has married her daughters off, now takes on the task of doing the same for the Dashwoods.

In the meantime, Mr Willoughby joins the story when Marianne slips while out walking and twists her ankle.  He rescues her and returns her home.  Thereafter he is included in the regular balls, parties and events of the neighbourhood.  It becomes clear to all that he and Marianne form a strong and unconcealed attachment, which eventually leads people to suspect that they must have become engaged.

All seems to be going along well when in short order both Edward Ferrars and John Willoughby turn the Dashwood sisters’ worlds on end, and a romantic farce ensues.  The sisters go to London under the auspices of the very kind Mrs Jennings, and a comedy of manners involving secret engagements, social climbing, and snobbery takes place.

The main theme is laid out in the title of the novel – Sense and Sensibility.
Elinor is all about prudence, good judgement, careful behaviour and attending to all the social graces even when she is put out and in emotional distress.  It never occurs to her to spread her own pain and grievances to her mother or sister, or friends.  She is self-control personified.  She is sense embodied.

Marianne, on the other hand, is all about feeling.  She must gush, feel every pain and pleasure to its utmost. She does not attempt to be civil or considerate of others when her own emotional state is in flux, and gives no thought to the pain that her excesses give to her mother and sister.  She is ungoverned and makes no exertion to control her excesses of feeling.  She is all sensibility.

The question of how the farce resolves – does good sense result in happiness, or does sensibility? – is well worth the occasional tedious passages, and slightly melodramatic way that the outcome is arrived at.

But do check your modern sensibilities at the door.  There is plenty for a modern eye to disdain in the conduct of more than one character.  It also helps to keep in mind that the characters and some of their actions are meant to be excessive and ridiculous.  It is partly an 18th century send-up after all, not just a social commentary.

Happy reading !

The Dispossessed – Ursula K. LeGuin

Book # 326a

Reviewer: Kara


TD

This classic novel of science fiction is the story of Shevek, a physicist from a 150-year-old socialist-anarchist experimental utopia on a moon. He has begun to see cracks in his society, and a return to the ways that the founders left their home planet to escape. He travels to that home planet, with the ultimate goal of “tearing down walls.”

Written in 1974, the novel was an instant hit and won both the Nebula and Hugo awards. The primary theme of the novel is an illustration of the merits and dangers of anarchy and socialism. These ideas, while interesting, do read a little bit like a product of their time.

What makes the novel a must-read to this day are the other universal and complex themes it also tackles, including gender equality, the nature of time, and what it really means to be free.

The discussion of freedom occurs at two levels: the freedom of the individual and the freedom of ideas. The novel clearly advocates for personal freedom and glorifies an individual’s right to determine what s/he does for a living and for pleasure, who s/he loves, how s/he lives, etc., without any caveats. The implication here is that people are genuinely good and genuinely care about each other and about contributing something positive to the world.

This freedom was so important to the founders of the society where Shevek lives that they see even having possessions or, in many cases, committed relationships, as a prison. Children are named randomly by a computer and raised in group dormitory settings. Few people have monogamous partnerships and sexual relations happen easily and often. People own little more than a set of clothes or two and go to cafeterias for food. As Shevek says to the people on the home planet when he visits:

“Because our men and women are free–possessing nothing, they are free. And you the possessors are possessed. You are all in jail. Each alone, solitary, with a heap of what he owns.”

The freedom of ideas is central to the novel, and is central to Shevek’s quest: he has discovered a physics formula of great importance and wants to share it with everyone in all societies on all planets. The importance of shared ideas is stated most clearly in this passage:

“It is of the nature of idea to be communicated: written, spoken, done. The idea is like grass. It craves light, likes crowds, thrives on crossbreeding, grows better for being stepped on.”

The plot moves very slowly overall, and I was more than halfway through the book before it really picked up speed. Part of this is due to the necessity of world-building, part of this is due to the non-linear structure, and part of this is due to the frequent asides on physics, philosophy, relationships, and political systems. The slow pace didn’t bother me much, but if you prefer adventure or galactic battles in your sci-fi, this isn’t going to hit the spot for you.

If, however, you’re curious what a society where freedom is the ultimate (and only) collective value might look like, this novel is fascinating. And if you’re looking for thought-provoking discussion and the occasional beautifully-written sentence (somewhat rare in science fiction!) look no further. Case in point:

“‘If you can see a thing whole,’ he said, ‘it seems that it’s always beautiful. Planets, lives … But close up, a world’s all dirt and rocks. And day to day, life’s a hard job, you get tired, you lose the pattern. You need distance, interval. The way to see how beautiful the earth is, is to see it as the moon. The way to see how beautiful life is, is from the vantage point of death.'”