The Brilliance of Margaret Atwood

After taking an extended break from blogging, I’m back with a double review of one of my favorite authors. I honestly believe that Margaret Atwood could write in any genre, as these two novels are so different to each other. First, we have a page-turning dystopian thriller that is not The Handmaid’s Tale. The next review is a complex narrative labyrinth that touches on multiple genres. Although as different as night and day, both of these works demonstrate the full range of Atwood’s brilliance.

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Photo Credit: Natalie Getter

Oryx and Crake

Recently, I’ve realized that I have a passion for dystopian fiction. I’m not sure why. Maybe it’s because these stories connect so strongly to the present state of our world. Perhaps I just love the science fiction elements. Or it could be that I love going into an existential depression. Whatever the reason, I am going to applaud Atwood for creating an engrossing thriller that had me on the hook from the first page.

Oryx and Crake is the story of a man who calls himself “Snowman.” The survivor of a devastating apocalypse, he might possibly be the last pure human left. Surrounded by a bleak world filled with bizarre hybrid animals, Snowman fights for survival while also serving as a false prophet to a genetically-modified race known as the “Children of Crake.” Through flashbacks, we learn about Snowman’s life before the apocalypse when he was simply a normal man named Jimmy. As the book progresses, we learn about the events that led to the end of the human race.

Atwood throws her readers in headfirst with so many questions. The flashbacks are perfectly paced as answers come slowly rather than in a rush of exposition. The story becomes clear as Snowman reflects on his life as Jimmy when he had a genius friend named Crake and a mysterious lover named Oryx. These short trips into the past are alternated by Snowman’s life in this post-apocalyptic world where each day is a fight to survive. Some of the answers are given in a way that the reader has to work out fully what is happening. While some readers may be frustrated by this method, I loved how it was like solving a gigantic puzzle with only certain pieces.

What makes Oryx and Crake such a disturbing read is that I could easily imagine many of the book’s scientific breakthroughs as plausible. On one hand, this is a story about how the scientific community can become abusive in its power of creation. There are some truly horrific scenes in this book that made me cringe. Of course, we know that events are going to end terribly, but we continue to read because we want to see just how that happens. Atwood doesn’t hold back in her critiques of society, science, and humanity’s abuse of natural order.

Another aspect of this novel that I loved is the genius world-building of Atwood. She manages to create this world in such a subtle way through giving just a little information at a time. Although he’s difficult to like at first, I found myself sympathizing and pulling for Jimmy as I viewed this story through his eyes. As the son of scientists, Jimmy’s life is one of privilege living inside a compound that houses the scientists and their families. Outside these communities lie the “Pleblands” where the average members of society live. By having the novel told entirely through Jimmy, we only see pieces of this world which adds to its disturbing nature.

This also holds true for how the other two main characters of the novel are portrayed. While it doesn’t take long for us to see that something isn’t quite right about Crake, that image is blurred through Jimmy’s devotion to him as a friend. Oryx serves as the love interest for Jimmy, but her story is a small part of the overall book. She is the most ambiguous, and we never get a clear understanding of her as her story is narrated by her as remembered by Jimmy/Snowman. So there’s a lot of unreliable information presented on Oryx’s background. One of the themes of this story is the manipulative power of storytelling over someone, such as Oryx narrating bits of her past to Jimmy as well as how Snowman has to be deceptive in order to get the Children of Crake to accept him as a prophet.

While Oryx and Crake is the first in a trilogy, it reads well as a standalone novel. I will most likely pick up the other two novels in the series at some point, but I am definitely satisfied if my journey with Snowman ends here. The writing is strong, the characters well-crafted, and the book serves well as a cautionary tale, the way good dystopian novels should.

“He doesn’t know which is worse, a past he can’t regain or a present that will destroy him if he looks at it too clearly. Then there’s the future. Sheer vertigo.”

 

The Blind Assassin 

This novel was such a change of pace from the other one. For one thing, it’s a beast to digest. It’s so hard to summarize such a long and complex book, particularly when it’s actually three stories rolled into one. The first story is about Iris, an elderly woman who looks back on her life, including an abusive marriage to a wealthy businessman and her relationship with her sister who died as a young woman. The second is the recreation of Iris’s past. The third story is a work of noir fiction written by Iris’s sister, posthumously published about two lovers who are collaborating on a work of science fiction. Do you see what I mean about complicated? It takes a while to work through all the labyrinths of this book.

While summarizing this book was hard, I think it’s even more of a task for me to explain why I loved it. I found myself mesmerized by Atwood’s ability at telling such a complex story with relative ease. Obviously, I loved the story-within a story-within a story framework. Another strength of Atwood is at how she fosters empathy for the powerless. In this case, she recreates a world where the suppression of women is commonplace. It works perfectly with the science fiction elements of one of the other stories as this period of history truly feels like an alien world. Atwood does an amazing job of capturing the subtle ways women rebelled back in the 1930’s.

As with Oryx and Crake, Atwood gives us a narrow view of this world thanks to a protagonist who lived a life of privilege. The Chases are the wealthy family in town, and Iris and her sister are raised in isolation, as “befits their station.” When the Depression hits, the family loses everything, and the town becomes engulfed with communist agitators, including a man named Alex Thomas, whom the girls meet. Iris’s father marries her off to a business rival, Richard Griffen, in order to save the family from desolation. Both Iris’s husband and sister-in-law are emotionally abusive and controlling. There are several scenes in this book that will enrage you at how Iris and her sister are treated.

There is a major twist at the end of this book to which I’m proud to say I figured out. My favorite sections of the novel were the chapters from the fictional noir novel, which provides clues to what actually happened. I really liked the character of Iris’s sister Laura who marched to the beat of her own drummer. As with Iris, I found myself so angry by how events unfolded for her.

While The Blind Assassin is another work of sheer genius, getting through it was hard for me. It’s a much longer book than Oryx and Crake, and the pace is significantly slower. My advice for Atwood newcomers is to hold off on this one until you’ve read at least a couple of her other works first. Margaret Atwood continues to amaze, and I plan on tackling her most popular novel, The Handmaid’s Tale, very soon.

“If you knew what was going to happen, if you knew everything that was going to happen next—if you knew in advance the consequences of your own actions—you’d be doomed. You’d be ruined as God. You’d be a stone. You’d never eat or drink or laugh or get out of bed in the morning. You’d never love anyone, ever again. You’d never dare to.”

Have you read any of these books? I’d love to know your thoughts! Let me know with a comment below. 

 

 

13. ‘Endless Night’ by Agatha Christie

Endless Night marks my third time reading Agatha Christie. I started with The Murder of Roger Ackroyd and fell in love with Belgian sleuth Hercule Poirot. The following year I read And Then There Were None, a book that is often viewed as the best of the mystery genre. Although both were crime novels, I was impressed with how vastly different one was from the other. Endless Night is another standalone Christie novel, and it provided a completely new reading experience. It’s not your traditional detective story. In fact, the crime doesn’t even occur until the final third of the book. Christie spends the majority of the novel establishing her characters and creating a disturbing atmosphere worthy of the great Daphne du Maurier. Endless Night is a fantastic thriller serving as inspiration for later domestic thrillers like Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl.

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Until the actual crime occurs, Endless Night unfolds as a rather slow-paced love story with a gothic feel. Its narrator, Michael Rogers, is a young man born on the wrong side of the tracks. Moving from one odd job to the next, our restless narrator dreams of one day having a special house with a woman who loves him. As luck would have it, Michael stumbles upon a property auction in the country where he meets Ellie, a sweet-natured American girl who happens to be a wealthy heiress. The two soon fall in love and have a house built on the property where they met. It all sounds too perfect for the happy couple. So what if the property where they built the house is cursed, or that an old gypsy woman appears to be stalking them all the while foretelling their doom. What could possibly go wrong?

I can see why Christie named this one as one of her favorites. She spends a lot of time crafting her two main characters, helping us understand what makes them tick. The road to happiness is not a smooth one, as Michael has to deal with Ellie’s family who are not too thrilled to have a poor drifter attached to her wealth. Another source of tension is Greta, Ellie’s trusted companion whose influence leads to feelings of jealousy and mistrust. Underlying all the domestic tension is this creeping uneasiness that gradually builds over time. Christie manages to establish a strong sense of atmosphere which helps move the story along. We know something bad is going to happen, and the mystery is actually what that something is actually going to be.

Once the crime actually occurs, it doesn’t take long to get to the final dark twist. However, there is plenty of misdirection on Christie’s part as she once again proves herself to be quite the magician. Although she used a similar trick with one of her other novels, I will forgive her due to the delicious atmosphere she evokes in a truly compelling story. This is one of her lesser known novels that is worth checking out.

“Some are born to sweet delight, Some are born to endless night.”

Read as my sixth book for the TBR Challenge.

10. ‘number9dream’ by David Mitchell

I wanted to share this wonderful dream I recently had. It’s the one where I read David Mitchell’s novel number9dream and found myself lost within its labyrinthine structure. The good news is that I managed to escape, although the work continues to leave an imprint on my mind. The truth is the experience wasn’t a dream at all, but a novel I’ve spent the last few weeks absorbing slowly and trying to decide if I actually loved it. The first time I read David Mitchell (it was Cloud Atlas), it blew my mind. Immediately, I was convinced that he was one of the greatest writers within the past century. Since then I’ve read Ghostwritten, The Bone Clocksand for the second time his horror novel Slade House. Although Mitchell has become a constant favorite, I’m still unsure regarding my feelings regarding this latest read.

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The title of this novel comes from a John Lennon song, much the way Norwegian Wood, the title of Haruki Murakami’s novel, came from an old Beatles song. A novel that takes its influence from two of my heroes has the makings of a beautiful masterpiece. This book is Mitchell’s second release following the world-spanning and multiple protagonist work Ghostwritten. At first glance, number9dream appears to be more of a mainstream novel as the action follows one singular character. Eiji Miyake is a young man who has arrived in Tokyo searching for the father he never knew. While the absent father story line is a typical motif in a quest novel, the work quickly takes on multiple meanings under the skilled hands of its author. Eiji becomes involved in several different narratives, such as falling in love with a pianist who possesses “the perfect neck” as well as getting involved in a gang war while holding down a series of low-level jobs to support himself. I question if Mitchell’s mind often works at the same pace as his novels as the poor man must be breathless all the time.

If there is one characteristic that defines a David Mitchell novel, the word “genre-bending” comes to mind. Alternating the styles of detective story, action movie, cyberpunk thriller, and romance, this is a work that refuses to stay put for any length of time. I honestly believe that Mitchell could write a straight novel in any style, and perhaps it’s his strict refusal to adhere to just one style that makes his novels so endearing to the reading public. Mitchell makes this story a tribute to the works of Murakami, such as large sections of the novel which showcase Eiji’s dreams or fantasies. His interactions with an assorted cast of oddballs and misfits are variations of elements that would be right at home in a Murakami novel. Mitchell leans heavily on the bizarre, Kafkaesque developments that leave you questioning which parts are reality and which are fantasy. I suppose life can be like that as well.

Like with many heroes, Eiji is a spiritual orphan as his father abandoned his mother, and his alcoholic mother in turn abandoned Eiji and his twin sister, Anju, many years ago. Beneath the quest of finding his absent father, we learn of a tragedy that runs very deep. Just when our hero believes he has found answers, he is quickly thrust down another rabbit hole. Some of these adventures are simply fantasies as Eiji has a rather active imagination. Others, such as the horrific scenes involving two warring gangs are straight out of a work by Tarantino. Interspersed with the violent and cinematic scenes are glimpses of Eiji’s day-to-day existence in Tokyo, where he lives in a small room above a video store, and flashbacks of his childhood in the Japanese countryside, where he and his twin sister grew up.

“maybe the meaning of life lies in looking for it”

Despite alternating sections which move at a variety of paces, this novel is a highly philosophical piece on the theme that the meaning of life lies in the adventure itself rather than the goal. Eiji soon finds the initial journey of finding his father lost beneath the all the other quests he endures. This search for meaning is not limited to its title character. Eiji’s friend Suga wants to hack his way into the Pentagon’s computer; the young woman named Ai, who becomes the object of Eiji’s affection, wants to move to Paris to study music; and his landlord Buntaro simply wants to be a good father as his wife is pregnant for the first time. One of the themes that is the focus of this novel is that in life we often have to redefine our dreams, our goals. As we get older, we change and so what becomes meaningful also changes.

I’m a firm believer that some novels cannot be fully appreciated the first time they are read, and I highly suspect that number9dream is one of those works. Similar to taking on a new endeavor or walking down an unfamiliar path for the first time, you often become overwhelmed by the experience itself. The lingering after effects are what persuades you to pick up the work a second time. I have a strong suspicion I will be rereading all of Mitchell’s novels once I get them all finished for the first time.

“A book you finish reading is not the same book it was before you read it.”

 

Read as my fourth book for the TBR Challenge.

6. ‘Stranger Things Happen’ by Kelly Link

My first experience with Kelly Link was her short story “Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose.” A college professor who had read one of my short stories recommended it to me because he thought I wrote in a similar style. Of course, I immediately found a copy of Link’s story and was completely blown away by it. A deceased man is stuck in a strange version of the afterlife writing letters to his still-living wife. Unfortunately, he can’t remember her name and several important details, but he does regain some random memories such as the girl who beat him up in the fourth grade. As time passes, the afterlife becomes stranger and stranger. It was a story unlike any I had ever read before, as Link takes you on a journey that moves in all kinds of directions. Since that first encounter, I’ve become a huge fan. Stranger Things Happen is Link’s first published collection and an excellent starting point for her rather unique voice. While I didn’t fall in love with every story in this collection, I enjoyed the majority of them. Link’s writing is full of heart as well as humor with more than a fair share of the surreal.

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Appropriately enough, the above-mentioned “Carnation” kicks off the eleven bizarre journeys featured here. There is a dreamlike aspect to all of the fiction that often makes you wonder if you are actually lying in bed dreaming rather than reading a book of stories. That’s the best way I can describe it after reading “Survivor’s Ball, or The Donner Party” which mingles a toothache with a mysterious love affair ending in a rather outrageous dinner party. “Water off a Black Dog’s Back” is a fun story about a man who is meeting his girlfriend’s rather odd parents, such as the dad who is missing his nose but crafts his own replacements out of various materials.

Many of the pieces in this collection are adaptations of classic fairy tales. My favorite one “Travels with the Snow Queen” retells the Hans Christian Anderson story from the point-of-view of a jilted lover. “The Girl Detective” is following the Twelve Dancing Princesses whose activities at night will surprise you. “Shoe and Marriage” begins as a retelling of the Cinderella story before taking on a life of its own as something involving a television pageant show.

Several of the stories are completely changed between the first sentence and the last one. It’s easy to get lost in the mire of a Kelly Link story, as I had to go back and reread several pages. The most confusing tale for me was “Louise’s Ghost” about two friends who are both named Louise. Or were there two women named Louise? I still don’t know, so let this serve as a warning to be prepared for confusion. “Flying Lessons” about a girl who falls in love with a demigod starts out confusing but comes together beautifully in the final pages.

All of this strangeness may sound frightening, but there is some really poignant writing underneath all of it. Link uses the fantastic in order to tell very human stories. One of my favorites was “Vanishing Act” about a girl who doesn’t like her cousin who stays with her family for a short period of time. As the story progresses, you feel for both the girl and her cousin for different reasons. “The Specialist’s Hat” is the story of twin girls and their absent-minded father living in a haunted house. The subtlety in which Link embeds the true message of her fiction is what makes her one of the best short story writers I’ve ever encountered. The fantastic elements that help drive the story serve as beautiful window dressing.

I don’t recommend reading Stranger Things Happen in one sitting. Link’s fiction is stronger when you come up for air after diving down into the beautiful strangeness that is her writing. I promise there will be a story or two that stays with you, much like a few bars of a forgotten song.

“Part of you is always traveling faster, always traveling ahead. Even when you are moving, it is never fast enough to satisfy that part of you.”-“Travels with the Snow Queen

I read this book for the TBR Challenge. You can see my progress hereHave you read this book? I’d love to know your thoughts! Let me know with a comment below. 

 

5. ‘Widdershins’ by Charles de Lint

As I was compiling a list of books for the 2019 TBR Pile Challenge, I made a discovery so horrific that it defies all the rules of logic. It was just sitting there collecting dust, a book from one of my favorite authors that I have yet to read! Immediately, I knew that this terrible injustice had to be made right. The result is the review that sits before you. I’ve mentioned that we all have those special authors that lie closest to our hearts. These select few can do no wrong in our eyes, and for me, one of those is Charles de Lint. Ever since reading his short story collection Dreams Underfoot, I’ve been a devoted follower. He is one of the best writers of fantasy fiction and can definitely hold his own in the company of the likes of Neil Gaiman. If I had to select a work by de Lint that I would consider his finest, it would be this one. Widdershins manages to bring all the strands of his previous books together into a seamless whole that is both epic and completely masterful. If a book could be pure magic, it would be this one.

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The most difficult part of writing this review is summarizing the massive story that de Lint has created here. Widdershins is set in the magical town of Newford and is a continuation of artist Jilly Coppercorn’s story from The Onion Girl. There are two rather complex stories that are running throughout this novelone extremely epic with huge ramifications for all the characters while the other is a much more personal narrative as Jilly battles the demons of her tragic past. A horrible act triggers a war between the fairy realm and beings known as cousins, the original inhabitants of this country. Meanwhile, Jilly is trapped in a nightmare world created through the traumas of her childhood. Although these concurring stories are told differently, I was nothing short of impressed at how de Lint manages to weave these two plots together so seamlessly. Is it possible, he really is a magician?

Although Widdershins is full of complex and intriguing plots, its the characters that make this novel worth it and they all have roles to play. If you’ve been following the Newford stories for as long as I have, then you are in for a real treat as all of the magical beings of the past put in appearances as well as some new characters. Who doesn’t love the crow girls, or Raven who pulled the world out of a pot? There’s Christiana, a shadow of another character who formed her own life. Joe Crazy Dog has the ability to make peace with others but holds a frightening power inside himself. De Lint is a master storyteller who can blend magical beings into everyday reality and makes you believe that they exist. However, at the heart of this novel are the characters of Jilly and Geordie. Everyone knows they belong together, and yet they keep their distance for fear of ruining their friendship. The term “widdershins” means to walk backwards or counterclockwise around something. For this novel, the term holds a double meaning as it is the traditional way to enter the fairy realm as well as the slow way people tend to back into relationships. As you read this novel, you will see that the title is quite appropriate.

“But I, at least, am human and we’re never satisfied, are we?

De lint is also quite an experimental novelist. The narrative alternates from character to character, but the style of the storytelling is not the same throughout the novel. The chapters which focus on Jilly as well as two of the other primary characters are told in first-person, while the rest are in third-person. While this sounds like a complete disaster, trust me when I say it not only works but is handled beautifully. I also noticed how de Lint shifts the tense from past to present in the case of the character of Grey. As he is a “cousin” or Earth spirit, he exists in the now as opposed to humans who often are stuck in the past. For a story that involves a character being stuck in her past, I thought this was pure brilliance. For a story that deals with magic and the fairy realm, it’s the human component that is the heart of this book. The question of whether or not violence is ever justified is asked repeatedly, and one would have to be ignorant not to find the parallels between the main conflict and our own sad history.

I would be doing Mr. de Lint a disservice if I didn’t mention the most powerful aspect of this novel. This is book that deals with the horrors of child abuse. Jilly’s story, which serves as the core of this novel, is handled beautifully. Typically, a fantasy novel would not handle such a complicated psychological topic. I thought that de Lint handled this issue extremely well with Jilly spending most of the book trapped in a world created by her own subconscious. Several fantasy elements are placed there, but I think they served to heighten the story rather than detract from it. For those that are long-time fans of Jilly’s story, this book is a wonderful culmination of her journey.

I think if you have never read another novel by de Lint before, this novel would be somewhat confusing (and filled with spoilers of his other novels), so I recommend you start with some of the earlier Newford stories, such as Memory and Dream or The Onion Girl first. Another great starting point would be the short story collection Dreams Underfoot. Here’s a great review by fellow blogger Allison at Climbing Mount To Be Read. Whatever your starting point, whether in chronological order or taking the widdershins route, you really should check out this extraordinary writer who is way beyond a mere genre author.

“Because some things – the deep, meaningful things that sit at the heart of our souls – can’t be touched by magic.  They can only be touched by the hurt or the love that we offer to each other.”

 

Have you read this book? I’d love to know your thoughts! Let me know with a comment below.