Charlotte Reads Classics

Slowly, slowly, she sipped a sentence.

Tag: Margaret Atwood

Endings, of Sorts

Time has been flying by this month and I’ve ended up posting this a lot later than I thought I would have. This post is a bit of a mash up of my reading over the last two weeks before Christmas – Christmas posts to follow shortly!

After my bout of complaining about Sense and Sensibility I did manage to complete Emma. I even enjoyed it. It was the first time I had read it, and found its silliness somewhat light relief after ploughing through Sense and Sensibility. I loved the character of Emma’s father; his gruel in the evening, panic at dining in company, wariness of chills, robbers, colds, overexertion, wet feet, mist, marriages… As for Emma herself, I thought she was pretty lucky that everyone was so tolerant and adoring of her. I’m not sure she’d get the same reaction today – although Cher was pretty believable in Clueless. I wonder if Austen felt a little bit of glee in sending up women like Emma (I hope so!). I suppose I read Austen for the marriages not the money, although I did miss having a heroine I truly wanted the best for.

I called it a day on Advent with Austen after that, but I was pleased with what I managed. I read Death Comes to Pemberley, Jane’s Fame, Sense and Sensibility and Emma. My conclusions are: I admire Austen for the legacy she has left and I have no desire to ever read an Austen spin off. At long last I have read all of Austen’s major novels and my order of preference is:

  • Northanger Abbey
  • Persuasion
  • Pride and Prejudice
  • Emma
  • Sense and Sensibility
  • Mansfield Park
I didn’t get to read Claire Tomalin’s biography or Lady Susan, The Watsons and Sanditon, but thats okay – they’ll just sit snugly on the shelf until their time comes.
Following the Austenathon I needed something new, but guaranteed to be brilliant. I started writing a round up of the this years reading when the solution was obvious – Margaret Atwood. She is one of my very favourite authors, who I first discovered back in January. I read The Handmaid’s Tale and was immediately hooked by Atwood’s immense talent and sheer genius. She is so intelligent and such a brilliant writer. She creates characters I feel I know inside and out, people I’ve lived with, loved, parted with, and missed as soon as the book is over. I then picked The Blind Assassin and Alias Grace to read back to back and loved them both too. So I chose the last two Atwoods on my bookshelf to see the year out as it began.
Cat’s Eye or The Robber Bride? I could read them both (and did!) but which to start with? I read the opening lines of both:
‘Time is not a line but a dimension, like the dimensions of space.’ – Cat’s Eye
‘The story of Zenia ought to begin when Zenia began.’ – The Robber Bride
I eventually picked Cat’s Eye because of the introduction by Ali Smith – nothing but praise, enthusiasm and an urging sense that not reading this book means you are missing out… It turns out I had been missing out, because Cat’s Eye is a fantastic book. I absolutely fell in love with the main character, Elaine. The book is about childhood, growing up, bullying, depression, creativity and the passing of time. It was such a realistic portrayal of childhood innocence and the way the rituals and games of youth are remembered. This has definitely overtaken The Blind Assassin as my favourite of all Margaret Atwood’s book which I’ve read so far.

The Robber Bride didn’t hook me in quite the same way: it wasn’t instant love like Cat’s Eye but a growing interest in the characters. Zenia is a fantastic literary villain – after a few chapters I couldn’t believe how much I disliked her! I can’t recommend Margaret Atwood’s books enough, because I haven’t read books by many other authors with such a fantastic imagination.

Alias Grace

Alias Grace, Margaret Atwood

Atwood-fest continues! Although not as immediately readable as my last Atwood adventure, I’d still rate it. Obviously I now realise that Margaret Atwood doesn’t ever just write a story: This time she takes a real life figure from history and recreates her biography.

Grace Marks – sixteen year old murderess – tells her tale thirty years on but we never really know whether to believe her. I certainly wanted to… and yet, it wasn’t straightforward. I loved the snippets from newspaper articles and journals (which thanks to the author’s afterword we know are real quotations) that jumped in and guided us. It was very much a conscious building of an image, and yet there is still such an elusive quality to the novel. The subject matter was interesting and deservedly beautifully written. Another storytelling gem!

The Blind Assassin

The Blind Assassin, Margaret Atwood

If you didn’t know, The Blind Assassin is an engineered feat of writing: The story is narrated by Iris Chase, who informs us her sister Laura committed suicide ten days after the end of the second world war. Iris is now an old lady with heart problems, and wants to write a kind of confession of their lives to her estranged granddaughter. She remembers past events, not always chronologically, but skips between these memories and what is happening in the present. In addition to this, there is the novel written by Laura Chase (called The Blind Assassin) and newspaper articles spread through the narrative.

I’m not particularly into the kind of science fiction the story within the story within the story (the one actually featuring a blind assassin!) falls into, but as the novel continued I did begin to enjoy the relationship between the man and woman, especially as it begins to parallel the sisters’ lives more and more. I loved Iris as an old lady – she has some particularly excellent crazy elderly lines, but it was the hindsight and melancholic nostalgia that really won me over. And the tales of high society reminded me very much of the Ford Madox Ford novel I read recently.

Atwood manipulates this story perfectly – there really is no other book with such beautiful and touching depths.

Alias Grace Quotes

“All the same, Murderess is a strong word to have attached to you. It has a smell to it, that word – musky and oppressive, like dead flowers in a vase. Sometimes at night I whisper it over to myself: Murderess, Murderess. It rustles, like a taffeta skirt across the floor.”

“Out of the gravel there are peonies growing. They come up through the loose grey pebbles, their buds testing the air like snail’s eyes, then swelling and opening, huge dark-red flowers all shining and glossy like satin. Then they burst and fall to the ground.”

“He has been where they never could go, seen what they could never see; he has opened up women’s bodies, and peered inside. In his hand, which has just raised their own hands towards his lips, he may once have held a beating female heart.”

The Blind Assassin Quotes

“I became conscious of my heart, and of dizziness. Also of breathlessness, as if I were in over my head. But over my head in what? Not water; something thicker. Time: old cold time, old sorrow, settling down in layers like silt in a pond.”

“Beginnings are sudden, but also insidious. They creep up on you sideways, they keep to the shadows, they lurk unrecognised. Then, later, they spring.”

“The only way you can write the truth is to assume that what you set down will never be read. Not by any other person, and not even by yourself at some later date. Otherwise you begin excusing yourself. You must see the writing as emerging like a long scroll of ink from the index finger of your right hand; you must see your left hand erasing it.”

The Handmaid’s Tale

The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood

I’ve had at least one weird dream slightly related to this book since I finished it. Atwood defines this book as ‘speculative fiction’: it isn’t sci-fi because although it is futuristic, it is not outside the realms of possibility in terms of space and time.

An uncomfortable read, The Handmaid’s Tale is about one woman’s life in a totalitarian theocracy; she is part of the first generation to experience this way of life, but can remember how life was before. In the not so distant future, handmaids are given to men of the upper (ruling) class for procreational purposes. This book is very much about sexual freedom, violence, feminism, conservatism…

This is definitely a modern classic, the scariest part of it being that it isn’t so hard to imagine the events that would lead up to the creation of this kind of society.