Who Fears Death – Nnedi Okorafor

7767021Another book-club book, but one I was very much intending to read anyway. It’s the same author as The Book of Phoenix, though this is the earlier work, and I believe The Book of Phoenix is meant as a sort of prelude, to explain why the world of Who Fears Death is as it is.

The book is set in a nebulous, post-apocalyptic future, in Saharan Africa (though we are not given much more detail than that at the beginning), and has elements of near-future tech, mixed with a strange sort of technological absence. It hovers in the background, making a mess of any attempt to guess precisely when the novel is set.

Partly, this is to background the technology of the setting, because in many ways, the setting is not the point in that regard. Primarily, this is a story of a journey. It’s a story of people, and their relationships, and the difficulties of growing up not only different but outcast entirely. It’s a story of being a woman in a society that does not treat its women well. And it’s a story about being who you are, despite what comes around you. And, in many ways, it’s a story about destiny, prophecy, and whether or not the future is inevitable.

And I really rather liked it.

It is consistently obvious that the author is drawing on a different tradition than the same-old same-old pseudo medieval Europe we’re used to. She has Nigerian heritage, and has spoken in interviews about how this has influenced her work, and it shows – not that I am in any way qualified to spot it in that way, but there’s a strong sense of a tradition and a history pushing through, for all that it’s not one I’m familiar with. The magic, the tradition, and the way people form their societies speak to someone drawing on many many myths, and it makes me want to read more about where Okorafor got her inspiration. Obviously, in part, this different set of traditions is enticing simply because it is different – it’s refreshing to read something apart from what you’re used to. But it isn’t simply novelty that keeps the reader entertained – there’s a real intuitive feel to the way Okorafor portrays magic – magic that she emphatically doesn’t explain – and a beauty to the way she describes things.

I think that’s one of her major strengths – I found her a very vivid, visual writer, whose descriptions really set the scene for me. She gives you her setting in all your senses, and it is so, so easy to find yourself sucked in, really feeling the world she has created. And I think that’s the main reason it’s such a page-turner – because it’s so immersive.

Which is good, because the characters kinda sour that. I mean, I know she’s trying to write (and succeeding) very realistic, human, flawed characters. And I’m not going to say she doesn’t. My main issue is… I wasn’t rooting for any of them. I didn’t love any of them. And especially the main love plot felt… exasperating. Because you totally see why they’re together, what they see in each other… but they’re also really not very good for one another, and it’s just… painful to read. I want them to realise that there are better people out there for each of them. But they remain each other’s One True Love, and it’s infuriating. Which I guess is rather the point. All the relationships Okorafor gives us are Difficult in some regard, and bring to the fore problems both personal and societal – the way the female lead is patronised by the main male character, the way she’s prevented from learning magic because of the ego of the magician – because Okorafor fundamentally knows what she’s doing and what she wants to say. It just sometimes isn’t very Fun.

But hey, sometimes we don’t need fun. Sometimes we need an exploration of the repurcussions of female genital mutilation on the behaviour and psyches of teenage girls. To be honest, and this sounds weird, this was possibly the best bit of the book for me. Okorafor describes the event viscerally and horrendously, but manages to make the reader see why the characters choose to undergo it, and that they come out of it not immediately against the whole process. They form a bond that lasts a long way into the book, and the friendship that’s forged by going through FGM together is a huge aspect of the plot, as well as something of a saving grace for Onyesonwu, the main character, who has spent her life an outcast up until this point. But at no point is the FGM painted as a good thing – more, Okorafor is highlighting the lengths to which Onye has to go to fit in, to make herself acceptable to those around her, and it’s painful and horrifying and yet completely comprehensible.

Then we watch as the girls grow up, and see how their sex lives – and essentially their freedom as human beings – has been curtailed by this, and as they go on their journey, as they become free-er, this still holds them back. And in some ways, the magic is a metaphor for the FGM, and in some ways, the FGM is a metaphor for the way society has treated them. For all that I don’t particularly care about any of them, I do care about watching the way they interact, the way they have to deal with the fallout of what has been done to them their whole lives, the people they’ve been made to be, and how this contrasts with the people they want to be.

Freedom is… a huge theme that runs through the novel, alongside the inevitability (or not) of destiny, and I really think the way it saturates everything is totally compelling. It makes me want to read more of Okorafor’s work.

I gave this four stars and defended it vigorously in book club, and the lost one was simply because I had no characters to love. There’s a very obvious reason she’s won the BFA and WFA, and I will definitely read more by the author, and soon – I hear the Binti series is good…

Next up, House of Names, which alas, for all that it too is a literary author doing Greek mythology, it can’t hold a candle to Bright Air Black.

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Lumberjanes – Stevenson, Ellis, Watters & Allen

250px-lumberjanes_coverI shall sum this book up in two sentences:

Someone: “Ripley, no!”
Ripley: “Ripley YES!”

Ok, so, if I’m being brutally honest, it’s over-silly and definitely over-sweet, as a story. It’s too twee. It’s too self-absorbed…

But there’s a bookish ginger one who’s good at arm-wrestling.

I’m torn, is what I’m trying to say, over whether or not I like this.

The art is sweet and fun and cute and energetic… but the story isn’t really all that substantial – not particularly original mystery fare – and the textual interludes, while cool and definitely helping, aren’t sufficient to drag it up. Nor is the theme of female friendship, which… I wanted to love it just for that. We’ve got an all-female cast (two of whom are flirting adorably) and a massive “friendship is important”… but it went overboard on cutesy so I’m just not sold. It’s… yeah, it’s too twee.

Which is really annoying, because I am not fundamentally averse to twee. The boyfriend read Squirrel Girl, for instance, and deemed it stupidly twee, but that I loved. So clearly there’s something going on that drags this over the line. Buggered if I know what though. It’s got similar ethics, similar lightheartedness… similar lots of things. And yet. I wonder if it’s the art style – which I like – feeding into it? It’s got a lot to recommend it, especially in terms of energy, but maybe the lack of detail makes it feel… without depth.

I’m fundamentally glad it exists – I like the idea of books and stories celebrating female friendship and love – but this book is not for me. And that’s a shame.

Next up, Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor.

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Henchgirl – Kristen Gudsnuk

51kqhhith7l-_sx323_bo1204203200_And another birthday present. It’s almost like people think I enjoy books or something. Can’t think where they’d get that idea from.

Henchgirl follows the life of Mary Posa, a minion in a mildly evil gang, but who would very much like to lead a more normal, tax-paying existence. There are wacky hijinks and unusual circumstances, and we learn more about Mary’s backstory. It’s a very light, very easy-reading comic, that’s not trying to bog you down with the huge themes, and it succeeds at that.

If what you want is… well, what I want out of webcomics*… mild diversion and distraction, a nice continuity but without too much detail so you can pick it up next week when you forgot what happened… this is definitely the comic for you. That’s not bad, exactly – I can see times when I do want that, and hey, I read webcomics – but it doesn’t feel like quite what I want in an actual book. It doesn’t feel like it has enough substance for that. I’m not sure it’s trying to. And that’s my major issue with this… I don’t think it quite knows what it wants to be.

But, if you pull yourself away from the fundamental confusion of Its True Purpose, and maybe read it like you would a webcomic, in an amiably meandering sort of way, it is intensely enjoyable. The art is very very cute, while being energetic and dynamic. There are funnies, but they are not the focus, and exist in service of the characters and plot. There’s commentary on the superhero genre (some of the heroes in the book are pretty much re-colours of existing heroes, and some are just mockeries of the concepts). There’s an awful lot going on that is definitely worth doing… it just ain’t really about the plot and pacing.

What you do very strongly get is a sense of the characters and who they are.

Gudsnuk manages to do the thing where she gets across a surprising amount of character content in a small amount of space, by the way she symphonises the art and writing. Facial expressions, particularly. Some comics, you don’t feel like you get enough of a chance to get to know the characters in a small space of time… for all that Henchgirl is a lot heftier than the trades I normally read, she gets that sense of person through, mainly for Mary but also for the background characters, in a very small amount of time, and so I feel that had I been reading this as a webcomic in real time, I’d have definitely felt ok about that aspect of it. Which I suppose is the benefit of the webcomic format – they have to do that groundwork and quickly, because if people only get three pages a week, they probably aren’t going to give you 100 pages of chance to set the scene.

I haven’t really said much, but there isn’t an awful lot to say. It’s not the best thing I’ve ever read for plot, but in terms of staring at the pretty pictures, enjoying the jokes and just generally being made a bit happier by the object in my hands, I’m not faulting it.


*So apparently this is/used to be a webcomic. Go me. Spotting the obvious stuff without even knowing it.

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Bright Air Black – David Vann

29214418This one was another birthday present, and one where I read the blurb and just went “yessssss”. Because I am predictable, and giving me reinterpretations of Classical myths to read is never going to go wrong.

And then it comes with an author’s note explaining why he’s setting it firmly in the Bronze Age, “following the archaeological evidence and never straying from realism”. Yes, yes and more yes.

We join Medea on the stern of the Argo, disposing of the body of her brother in the sea as her father chases, and follow her with Jason through to Iolcus and Corinth and the death of her own children. Vann doesn’t stray from the events of the traditional narrative, but the joy is in how he interprets, the choices of style and tone and realism he makes, and with the characterisation of Medea, and the reader’s view of her from within her own head.

And the prose.

First and foremost, I loved this book because the prose is beautiful. Even more than for the Classics (because sure, putting Classics in something will 100% get me to read it, but might make me angry if you do it “wrong”), I was just sucked in because it flowed wonderfully. It’s very much focussed on imagery and less concerned with actually setting out a clear plot, which I’m fine with, but I suspect is not everyone’s cup of tea. Vann seems quite keen on dropping verbs as a very direct way of giving his prose a distinctive style, and if I’m honest, it works surprisingly well. It feels very vivid and immediate, while also slightly alien – it helps with getting inside the mind of someone who thinks totally differently to us… while still having it feel real and there.

And Medea is so easy to slip into the mind of – while her actions and motivations are completely outside of what any reader might actually do, she remains plausible, while being constantly changeable. Her love for Jason, coming and going with each of his actions and her own revelations, is immensely believable, as well as her constant rage and need to undermine the kingship of men.

And this is really a central theme in the book – Vann paints Medea as a revolutionary within her mind, raging against the very existence of kings across the world, wondering why they must exist at all, where they came from. Why is it that men rule over everyone? Why do people allow it? Vann’s Medea questions everything with no answers – she posits all sorts of things, including that there was no world before the time of her father, but never comes to a conclusion that satisfies her – and seems to rage against this uncertainty too. She wants to rule herself, she wants to rule kingdoms, and all the while hates men and kings for doing so. She’s inconsistent and inconstant, united only by a theme of wanting change and destruction by her own hands. By joining her just after she has killed her brother, watching her regrets slip away into justification and determination, and following her right up until the deaths of her own children, we join the circle of destruction at beginning and end, as she cannot stop herself from breaking the world because she doesn’t like the shape of it. Her regrets, even at killing her sons, seem distant and small compared to her all-consuming, omnidirectional anger, and that consumes the reader too, colours how we see the world around her.

Outside of Medea’s mind, people seem flat and dull, but only because that’s how Medea herself sees them – thinking them trapped in the daily grind, no different from the animals. She sees herself as seeing the truth of things, under the surface of the lies everyone tells to get themselves more glory and power, to get by, to pass the time. This is how she casts her eye at the world too, thinking herself to see the truth beneath the surface. Sometimes this means her seeing the gods that must be there, a mixture of Egyptian and Greek, Nute and Hecate, and sometimes this means a revelation that there are no gods, only what she makes in the world, the fear she brings to others. The fact that she sees more than one truth, even quite close together, is inconsequential, from her perspective.

When we have this perspective of her, Medea’s actions don’t seem reasonable, but the do become plausible, not in the way they often are portrayed – justified by the hurts done to her, borne of sadness and pain and emotion – but instead as part of this all consuming rage against what she sees the world to be. She almost seems to have herself outside of it all, not connected, which allows her to do what others would not. Not that it doesn’t matter to her, she sees how it all connects and what each action will achieve, and she does feel, her love for her children particularly is communicated very strongly, but that it too is distant to her, part of a world she is not fully in.

I love this Medea, the Medea who doesn’t pull back from her own monstrous actions. She knows what she’s done, what it is, the awfulness of it, and embraces it – “Let me be the most hated of women and most true”. There’s a power to it, and her, that is really captivating. Her determination to be free, too, is powerful, and draws together the threads of her anger and fear, drives her onward.

I also love the world Vann builds, viscerally primitive and real. He doesn’t shy away from the grim details that would populate the world back then, and he particularly focuses on smells, animals and plants and rot and the sea and human waste, the layers that would build together the atmosphere of society. He also brings a realistic smallness to it all, tells us what a “city” really meant back then, how close to the edge they often lived. This isn’t a world of any grandeur but for the fear and dreams Medea herself brings, or the vastness of nature while she experiences the “truth” of it. She finds beauty in the quiet of night on a ship, the light of the moon on the water, and Vann portrays these in gorgeous prose that brings the images and feelings right inside your mind, and uses the same vivid prose to bring out the foulness and reality of the world of men she walks through to life. There is no grandeur to the Argonauts, no honour or glory. We can’t look up to the man we watch shitting over the side of a boat. The only beauty Vann paints in the world is that Medea finds, and she has no love for the world of men (much though she wants to rule it all). But for all its grimness, I love that setting, that authentic agedness, detached from the way the heroic age is portrayed in the Greek myths and grounded in archaeologically-fuelled realism.

Particularly, Vann’s description of the Argo is borne of the fact he was involved in the building of a reconstructed ship of the type the Egyptian expedition to the fabled land of Punt might have used. We can hear the creak of timber and rope, the flap of the sails, and it really feels like the words come from someone who has been on a ship exactly like that (because he has).

Vann manages to contrast the beauty and the horror of a distant past that, for all it is contemporary with the myths we know, is glossed over so often. He brings both to life in a way that hypnotises the reader, unable to put the book down, and balances those two much in the same way he balances the emotions of Medea. She is many things, often contrasting, all at the same time, but somehow manages to exist as a real and believable character nonetheless. Likewise, the world is horrifying, yet glorious by turns.

This balance is highlighted by the way he constructs the story, chopping off beginning and end to give us a matching, linked, start and end-point, both embodying Medea’s rage and hatred, both depriving us of the immediate context we know exists, but with their rage and fear pointed very differently in both instances.

If I had to make a criticism, my only one would be that the impact of his prose lessened as I got used to the style. The first chapter was so enjoyable because I couldn’t ignore what he was doing with the writing. But as always, the mind gets used to things, and I stopped noticing what he was doing until I forced myself to stop and pay attention. I’m not sure there’s anything anyone can do about this, but if I had to nitpick, this is where that nitpickery would lie.

But it doesn’t stop me from giving the book a wholehearted five stars. I got a beautifully written Medea whose power wasn’t her gender, wasn’t her sex or her wiles. A Medea whose power is her ability to instill fear, and who embraces that to be the monster she doesn’t care that she is. I don’t want an apologetic Medea; I want a brutal, raw and vicious one, and that’s exactly what we get.

This book is brilliant and I love it, and I fully intend to get my sticky paws on other of his work, if this is the standard.

Oh, and also, the fact that the title is a direct quotation from Euripides does not go amiss. Just saying.

Posted in All, Awesome, Else, History/Myth | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl: Vol. 1 Squirrel Power – Ryan North and Erica Henderson

250px-the_unbeatable_squirrel_girl_1I have only one word for this, and it is: ADORABLE.

Oh, sorry, do you want a blog post? Fiiiiine.

So, most of the graphic novels I’ve read have been… not really the superhero-y traditional sort? We’re talking your Sandmans and your Ody-Cs, more than your Captains America. So this was kind of a new one for me, but I’d been recommended it before, and liked the concept, so I’d been wanting to read it for ages. Then I got given it for my birthday, because my friends are excellent. And it was precisely what I was hoping it was.

I’d been worried that, to read “proper” superhero comics, I’d need to have way more knowledge of the genre than I do, and that wherever I started, I’d never actually be at the start of anything, and that this would be a big problem for my understanding and enjoyment of what was going on. That may still be true for other stuff, but appears to have been 0% a problem for this one, at any rate. Sure, there was backstory… but I got given it (or enough of it that it felt fine) within the story. It worked. I never felt lost or insufficiently versed to Get It. And that was GREAT.

Also, frankly, it’s a cute story with lovely art, a proper sense of humour and a character I was destined to ADORE. She’s a ginger. Already, great start. She’s socially awkward and a bit oblivious and a total nerd. Just… yes!

I guess the main thing I felt when reading this that it was like the… not-dark equivalent of Deadpool*? The same constant thread of humour running through, not just on top of everything else but very nearly the main point. But it’s chirpy. It’s sweet. It’s happy. And… I wanted that. I get why Deadpool appealed to a lot of people, and I did enjoy the film. I am not averse to dark humour and sarcasm and all that jazz, not in the slightest. But at the same time, if I never see Deadpool again… eh? I’m not hugely fussed by that. But this… it’s endearing and I want to read more. Like now.

*looks up volume 2 on Amazon*

No. I don’t need more books. So many books to read…

Anyway. Serious face back on.

The characters are totally charming – Squirrel Girl herself is chirpy in a way that could definitely be annoying in other things, but it’s managed really well, and it pulls it off here in a way that I’m surprised it can manage. The other characters are obviously less well fleshed out – there’s not the time or space in a graphic novel to cram too much in – but they’re given some quick reference stuff so we get the central concepts of them immediately. The grumpy room-mate, Nancy, particularly is a) brilliant, b) grumpy and c) not a moron (in the face of Squirrel Girl’s blithe unsubtlety, admittedly, which isn’t exactly high-level intelligence). You get a sense of her really really quickly, and I know I’m going to love her.

The plot moves at a decent pace too, and for all that it’s not exactly deep and philosophical (oh noes) there’s enough going on that it feels like there’s some proper substance, with the promise for more.

That said, and with a great deal of love and respect, it’s definitely what I will probably come to view as comfort reading. It’s fluff. It’s excellent, well-written, visually pleasing fluff… but it’s pleasing, comforting and soothing, and it’s there to make me feel happy about the world, rather than confronting the issues of the day. Which isn’t always a bad thing. And if I’m going to read fluff, I’m still going to read something like this, which manages to be that without compromising on uniqueness or grace. It’s doing something all its own, not just the same tired old tropes. And, well, that’s my usual complaint with comfort reading. Comforting doesn’t have to be the same old thing every time. And this… isn’t. I’m not really sure what I could legitimately compare it to (she says, not having read all that many comics). But it just… made me feel better for reading it. And there’s definitely a place for that in the world.

The art is really cute too. There’s a great sense of movement to a lot of it, and it pulls off quirky faces for people without it being weird-looking. It’s not the sort of art I’m going to be staring at going “my eyes… so beautiful…” like Ody-C, but it definitely does what it sets out to do with a grace and style that make it distinctive.

Overall, I’m just really really glad I read it. It’s sweet without being sickly, and cheerful without being insufferable. It walks a difficult line that, when stumbled off, will annoy the heck out of me, and manages to do so with success and style. It could come off too happy, too cutesy, but I really don’t think it does. As soon as I have money/book capacity for more books, I will acquire more. And I will be very happy while reading it.

*I have only seen the film. I’m sorry if that is a poor reflection on the comics. I PLEAD IGNORANCE.

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Surface Detail – Ian M. Banks

surface_detail_hb_500x775It’s been a while since the last Banks novel, so I figured I’d keep working my way through them. And it’s sometimes nice to have something to read that you know you’re going to get on with, rather than a mystery book. Not that I’ve been sparse for decent books recently, but the other one hanging over me, half-read, The Vorrh… I’m not really enjoying so I keep putting it off. that said, I expected to plough through this much quicker than I did. The other Banks books I’ve read have sped by, because you just can’t put them down… this one… well, I definitely needed to get into it before I really got on with it.

But when I did get into it, it was definitely worth it. I was struggling to put it down, the last few days. And then… well, the ending (spoilers in the footnote*). It got 4 stars on Goodreads from me, but it was 4 it grew into, and definitely not in the top bracket… probably alongside Matter, among Banks novels.

What distances Surface Detail from the other Culture novels, and the notable thing I’m going to talk about (since most of the basic scaffolding of the novel is your standard Banks decent writing, plotting, world-building) is the fact that we move away from Special Circumstances, the bit of the Culture we tend to focus on in all the other books. We pull back slightly, and see Contact (of which Special Circumstances is a part) as a broader entity, doing other things than just allowing SC to exist. Specifically, we meet two new branches – Numina, Restoria and Quietus. Numina and Restoria come up in passing (Numina deals with sublimed entities and Restoria with a kind of menace called a hegemonising swarm), but Quietus is somewhat the focus of the novel, and leads to us looking at a different aspect of the Culture that we haven’t really previously experienced – death.

I think it’s been hinted at before, but never really mentioned in the novels, that death isn’t quite just that in the Culture. And now we find out more. There are digital afterlives that one can be uploaded to, and people in those afterlives can be given back a body (“revented”). Quietus (the Quietudinal Service) is the branch of Contact that has purview over all of these people, and any legal issues that arise from them. And that thread – in two halves – is the main focus of the story. We have a member of Quietus, Yime, and the revented soul of a non-Culture member, Lededje, who was murdered and wants revenge on her murderer, but was revented a long way away from the world she died on, not even knowing she could expect anything after her death. What this means is not only do we get that insight into how the Culture deals with death, but more of how it deals with non-Culture citizens outside of the… less than diplomatic paths taken by Special Circumstances… which is really important. It breaks the pattern of Banks’ portrayal of the Culture, without really changing anything, we just see a new side that fits well with everything we know, but explores something else entirely.

He also weaves in more threads, I think, than in any of the other Culture novels I’ve read. Which is part of why the book is so good, and part of why it took so long to get into. With your interest spread that thinly, it’s much harder to get a grip on why you’re meant to care about each character. You get there eventually with most of them, but it just takes a bit more time than is his usual.

And then there’s my big issue with the book – we actually have what you could consider a Bad Guy. Which… is kinda new? And I’m not sure I like it. We’ve definitely had the people we sided with, the people we liked or didn’t, before, but never really a clear cut moral bad and good in quite the same way. Different factions, more. But Joiler Veppers can be nothing if not a baddie. And somehow, Banks has thrown subtlety out of the window for this one. Where he normally excels at balance, with Veppers, it’s just let’s turn all the evil dials up to eleven. He’s a super-rich, super-powerful, arrogant businessman with a penchant for rape, cruelty and violence. He gets no redeeming feature, no complexity – he’s just the worst thing a person could ever possibly be. And a caricature, beyond that. And that’s just slightly disappointing, because I’m used to Banks being better than that.

All the other characters are varied, fascinating and charming. They have their complexity and their motives and their confusions. But you have that little bit of villain in the background always, and it nags. And that’s why the book wasn’t going to get full marks from me.

That being said, it’s just a nag, not a full blown massive issue. Banks continues to Banks, and I remain entirely happy to keep reading his books. It’s not exciting, but it is true.

Next up… who even knows. I just had a birthday so my reading pile is ENORMOUS. It is two piles, both of them precarious. So we’ll have whatever I feel like next out of that… possibly a graphic novel, because I got some really exciting ones in there (particularly notably, Monstress Volume 1(Hugo winner) and Henchgirl (which just looks cool)) and I want something that won’t take me most of a month to finish.


*SPOILERS (for this and for Use of Weapons).
I have got used to everyone talking about the Culture novels as not being related. Apart from Consider Phlebas and Look to Windward. But the rest? Nope. Can read any of them standalone. All fine. Not a series. And that’s essentially true. This book totally made sense without any of the others… right up until the last page, and its big reveal. I can only imagine that would have been confusing and disappointing, had I not read Use of Weapons. Since I have, they revealed that Vateuil was “Zakalwe” all along, and it was great. I may have messaged “OMG HE WAS ZAKALWE” to boyfriend sat downstairs (he was there when I finished Use of Weapons and just shouted “FUCK!”). But I think the new reader would miss a lot by not getting this reference… not just by not knowing who “Zakalwe” is, but not knowing that the concept of the reveal, and of him being – and thinking he is – someone he isn’t is so intrinsic to another book in the series. It casts the whole of Vateuil’s arc in an entirely different light, which made finishing the book fantastic.

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The Penelopiad – Margaret Atwood

17645Well. This was very very interesting indeed.

No, really. I’m using “interesting” honestly here. And I think it’s the best adjective for the book… far more than “gripping” or any of the adjectives I might usually go for. Oh, and it’s very very good. I should say that now too. But, well, I am/was a Classicist, and some things never go away. And at the point when I’ve read nearly all the works she lists in the Notes as being her inspiration/research (including Trickster Makes This World, which I really feel I ought to reread at some point), I feel like maybe I am very much the target audience here. My interests – 100% catered for.

That being said, I’m still trying to decide what to say about it… beyond that it was good and interesting. It wasn’t what I was expecting at all – I thought it would just be a straight retelling of the story of the Odyssey but from Penelope’s perspective, seeing things from her side, maybe undercutting the grandeur of the story with the realism of the world of women at the time. And… it partly is that. But at times it doesn’t feel like Penelope’s story at all. Because it has a flip side as well, and that is the tale of the twelve maids hanged after the massacre of the suitors for their “disloyalty”. And it’s the two stories sewn together, sometimes undercutting one another and sometimes reinforcing, giving you two sets of unreliable narration, one from a self-confessed liar and the other from a group who change their story from chapter to chapter. It’s subtle masterpiece of giving you no idea who to believe, and not leaving you with any clearer narrative of the Odyssey than you started out with, even if you take into account all the variant narratives which exist.

But that’s one of the things I love about it. Because Penelope never actually settles on one narrative to say “yes, this is what happened”, especially when discussing Odysseus’ exploits. She absolutely says there are variants, from the noble to the base, the fantastic to the mundane, but at no point does she give any sort of hint of believing any particular one in favour of the other. She talks as though she believes the gods are real and present, but hints at their absence in the way she presents some of the stories of Odysseus’ journey. Nothing is settled or set.

In some sense, she brings this in right from the beginning. Atwood focusses on Penelope’s heritage including Naiad, and talks about what that might mean in terms of who she was. She draws heavily on watery imagery in terms of flexibility and fluidity, of personality, of truth, and I think this more than anything is the underlying theme of the whole story. You have Penelope, Odysseus and the maids, all giving flexible, changeable narratives, and never letting on anything more – cold, inscrutable, completely fluid. And the format of the book supports that too. It’s not just told in simple narrative, but switches between prose, poetry, play-script format and court-room transcript. The twelve maids form a chorus of sorts, but not one constrained to the classical format – they embrace all sorts of metres, rhythms and styles to convey their bleak message, sometimes slipping into anger, sometimes cold melancholy, sometimes dark humour, but always in a fitting and fitted style. It makes for a book that I don’t think I can completely appreciate in one reading – I will find more with every reading to pick apart, finding this particular bit of verse so very interesting. And if that’s not the mark of a great book, I don’t know what is.

That being said, and much like The Handmaid’s Tale, I find the characterisation of the Penelopiad a little remote. This isn’t a criticism, exactly, because it absolutely fits the tone of what Atwood is trying to do, but there’s that dissatisfaction at never quite actually knowing the character. You feel like Penelope is putting up a front – she talks about how often she bursts into floods of tears but you never get anything other than calm thoughtfulness from her in her dialogue/narration – and you want to get past it. But of course you never will. It’s a very successful bit of utter frustration, and I think partially because it does make her a fitting equal of Odysseus. She sets herself up as a deceiver on par with him, just operating within a different sphere, and like Odysseus, you never feel like you know what’s really real (I’m talking Odysseus as commonly portrayed, not just in the Homeric texts). While I don’t think Penelope’s characterisation is necessarily the most interesting thread Atwood has created (the maids’ story is just so well and varyingly told), the way she has chosen to do it is probably about the best way it could have been done. It is better than I was expecting of it, and better than most reinterpretation of Classics I’ve seen more broadly.

And then there’s just the prose. Atwood remains thoroughly, thoroughly excellent with a turn of phrase, and pulls you in immediately and lastingly. If I had to call it, I’d say the writing of The Handmaid’s Tale is slightly better, but we’re splitting hairs here. The trick she mainly pulls off here is managing to take that diversity of form and still creating a coherent whole. She’s got various viewpoints, opinion and versions of the truth, but it still feels like one story, and that is really something to praise.

I’m just going to get repetitive, at this point. It was an excellent book that I vastly enjoyed, and sure, some of that was the fact that I was very much the target audience, but some of it was just… Atwood can really, really write. She’s got the spirit of the works she’s invoking just so, and it manages to differ from them while treating them respectfully and honestly. She gives a realistic voice to characters I am deeply familiar with, and I don’t at any point feel like she’s overstepped the lines of what existed there all along. Which is what I want, as a fussy Classics pedant.

This is definitely encouraging me to seek out more Atwood in future, but next up, we’re back to Banks, with Surface Detail.

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