The Handmaid’s Tale

We were the people who were not in the papers. We lived in the blank white spaces at the edges of print. It gave us more freedom.

We lived in the gaps between the stories.

It’s finally here – the review of a book that was recommended to me by so many people that I accidentally bought two copies of it, and didn’t even realise until months afterwards. Easily the most compelling book I’ve read recently, The Handmaid’s Tale is a dystopian, speculative fiction of astonishing invention and dynamism. Like Tess of the D’Urbervilles, this a chronicle of downtrodden and oppressed women in an insidiously male-dominated world, but unlike Hardy, Margaret Atwood doesn’t simply content herself with pointing at her characters and going: “Look how awful this is! Look! Isn’t it horrible?! So horrible right?!?!”. Instead, Atwood, persuasively presents her ideas to the reader in an intellectually engaging way, creating a novel that is almost in dialogue with its reader.Read More »

Nineteen Eighty-Four

There are two things I ought to clarify as I start this review. Firstly, although I read Brave New World quite recently, I will keep comparisons between that text and this one to a bare minimum, because cleverer people than I have written more insightfully on the two texts together than I could hope to, and I don’t think I have anything new to add to that discussion. Secondly, and this is important to note: this is not a perfect book. I ought to make that abundantly clear to begin with, because this retrospective will look like an almost unabashed love letter to what at least one eminent critic described as “[George Orwell‘s] final masterpiece”, when in truth I’m not sure I could truthfully say that I even loved the book. The pacing, especially in the first 100 pages, is all over the place – there are whole passages of such dense exposition that the story literally stops dead while the reader is caught up – and as the book progresses Orwell becomes so dogged in his pursuit of reaching the logical conclusion of his ideas that there ends up being very little in the way of narrative resolution by the novel’s end. But thematically, politically and imaginatively, Nineteen Eighty-Four is so uncompromising and so consistently brilliant that one can’t help but feel a sense of awe at what Orwell has accomplished.

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Brave New World

Words can be like X-rays if you use them properly – they’ll go through anything. You read and you’re pierced.

When it comes to critical theory there are, broadly speaking, two opposing schools of thought regarding how one should view a work of art – whether that be fine art, literature, film, music or a well-made lasagne. One side would argue that it is impossible to review a work outside of the contexts in which it was created; the contextual date provides valuable insight that can inform one’s perception of the work in question. The other side would say that this is exactly what ought to be avoided; that a work should be examined completely independently of context in order to judge it purely on it’s own merits, and that a critic should try their best not to have their opinions coloured by any extraneous information pertaining to a piece of work that does not originate within the work itself. As with many things, I usually fall somewhere in the middle of this when I review a book – I try to remain a little sympathetic to the environments and contexts surrounding the creation and release of a book as I read it and write about it in order to increase my understanding, but I rarely use this information to excuse the flaws of a book or to showcase it’s merits.

But rules are made to be broken, and as I was thinking about the imaginative scope of Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World”, it struck me as a breathtakingly inventive novel even before I thought about when it was written. But when it is placed within this context it becomes, to me, more amazing and more interesting still.Read More »