This was… weird.
(I got that far and then paused writing to do something else, and now it’s over a week later and I’m tempted to leave this post there… but I won’t).
I’m not sure if that is a totally positively or negatively charged weird. It was just fundamentally peculiar. And while I enjoyed the book as a whole, the fact that it took some amount of effort to get into is probably the reason I took it down to a four instead of a five.
Mainly, the weird is the writing style. It’s very very stream of consciousness, and in the early parts (where the narrator is a small child) feels as if it’s meant to reflect her childishness and language skills still developing. But the style remains as she ages, the only difference being the extent to which the reader has become used to it. There’s an immediacy to it, and an efficiency, with a lot being cut out in her language except what is absolutely necessary to convey ideas. She also cuts herself off mid-flow often, distracted by a new thought, or interrupted, and circles back round to previous thoughts, or hops to a new one without an obvious chain. It does, in the main, feel very true to how a person might actually think, but it’s quite a difficult thing to get into at the start, because it, by necessity, forces the reader to do more work to pick up on things. By the end of the book, I’d almost stopped noticing the effort I had to put in, and had very much come to appreciate what the style was giving me, but it was definitely a process, and in such a short book, the fact that you have that acclimatisation period feels like you’re slogging through a significant portion.
But, ultimately, I think it’s a pay off that’s worth it. You feel by the very end that you know the narrator intimately and totally, in a way I don’t often feel in stories narrated conventionally. And given that it’s so deeply a book about one person’s feelings and interaction with her family and her own emotions, that’s incredibly valuable.
And that’s what I enjoyed so much about this book. It’s so fundamentally about one person’s experiences, so tied to their feelings, their growth, their experiences and their decisions. You cannot help but sympathise with the narrator, even when she behaves in ways you might not, thinks things you would not. She’s in no way like me, and yet I loved her, and I wanted to help and protect her from the awful things that happen in her life.
Spoilers (sorta): a lot of bad things happen to the narrator, both on the big scale and on the little scale. It is one of the books I’ve been closest to crying while reading (I don’t really cry at media, it’s just not something I experience, but I felt about as close as I ever do with this, in that I felt rather emotionally affected by it, and more attached to the narrator than I thought I was). It’s not a happy book in any way. It’s not an enjoyable book at all, and if what you look for in reading is to enjoy it, this is absolutely not for you. If The Handmaid’s Tale left you feeling uncomfortable and uneasy, and you didn’t want to keep reading it… yeah, skip this.
I… ok, so this is the hard part. Finding the language to say that I appreciated this book, when “like” and “enjoy” are so totally inappropriate. A lot of the words I normally use to describe my interest in and appreciation of books are rooted in happy feelings, and I think it’s entirely possible to really get on with a book that doesn’t make you feel happy at all. This book made me deeply, deeply sad. I can’t honestly say I enjoyed that; that would be weird of me, and “enjoy” is somewhat opposed to “sadness”, as concepts go. But I really, really connected with this book. It pushed exactly the right emotional buttons, because the author has latched onto a way of really pushing you into her narrator’s mind and becoming totally on board with who that narrator is and what she wants in life, and never gets. You sympathise with her so completely, you can’t help but keep reading. It’s not fun – I don’t like watching someone I sympathise with get dicked over by life – but by god it is compelling. And it’s beautifully done.
And so yes, I appreciated the book. I admire it. I found it compelling and addictive and sympathetic. I rated it very highly indeed. I maybe even loved it. But I didn’t like it. I didn’t enjoy it.
What the author also manages to do is pack an awful lot of life an experience into such a tiny book. I don’t think it could or should have been any longer – it would have detracted from the immediacy that the language provides, among other things – but to have given you so much raw emotion and humanity in such a slim volume is quite a feat, and one I think I need to appreciate more. Because it did somehow feel longer than that – you have to take your time to read each sentence, each page to glean every piece of meaning out of it, and so you cannot skim through at a pace. It’s a book to be savoured, and as such manages to pack more into itself than there actually is.
Like many things tied into one narrator, and wrapped inside their head, it is very much rooted in a worldview that reduces all other characters to mere shadows. Often, their motivations are opaque to use, because they are opaque to the narrator. We feel as she feels, and are confused as she is confused. But this is taken as feature, not bug, and used as a tool in building the narrative. Not understanding those around our narrator is a source of suspense – there is little opportunity to predict, because we don’t understand. We must experience things as they happen, and assess them only at face value. And that’s really interesting too. It feeds once again into the immediacy of the novel, with a feeling that only the present time matters – there is no real future in the novel. No real aspiration or purpose. Only events and their effects.
Ultimately, as a piece of written art, it’s a glorious thing. The author has a nearly-magical way of pushing the reader’s emotional buttons, and has done something genuinely interesting and effective with her language choices. At times it is difficult, it is unclear, but those things give way in the end to a better understanding and a worthwhile conclusion, that makes you understand that you needed to get through the difficulty for the sake of the pay-off. It’s a brilliantly written book, and I am incredibly glad to have read it.