Fiction for adults

I have chosen a Way – dear Friend – I must hold to it. Think of me if you will as the Lady of Shalott – with a Narrower Wisdom – who chooses not the Gulp of outside Air and the chilly river-journey deathwards – but who chooses to watch diligently the bright colours of her Web – to ply an industrious shuttle – to make – something – to close the Shutters and the Peephole too – you will say, you are no threat to That. You will argue – rationally. There are things we have not said to each other beyond the – One – you so starkly – Defined. I know in my Intrinsic Self – the Threat is there.

Roland Michell is a scholar in 1980s London, studying the Victorian poet Randolph Henry Ash. He finds some drafts of a letter between the leaves of a book from Ash’s own library, which leads him to investigate a possible connection with another Victorian poet, Christabel LaMotte – which leads him to a LaMotte scholar, Maud Bailey. The story is about the four of them – Roland and Maud tracing the connection between Randolph and Christabel – and where it all took them. It’s also about language, and poetry, and solitude, and relation, and academia, and stuff. Oh yeah, and feminism.

It took a very long time to get going, this book, and the “action” was intermittent even then – but there is action and there is insight, and poetry, and there is even feminism. I did like it, I did want to get to the end of it, I did gain something valuable from it, I have even found myself influenced by it in several directions – I just don’t think I would want to read it again! It had – too many words. The library fine will be enormous.

An Amazon link.
As hinted above, mine came from the library.


“The street veered sideways and vanished. Beneath her now was only an expanse of roofs, criss-crossed with brilliantly lit roads. Suddenly it all slipped sideways, the strings of light grew blurred and vanished.
Margarita gave another jerk, at which the sea of roofs disappeared, replaced below her by a sea of shimmering electric lights. Suddenly the sea of light swung round to the vertical and appeared over Margarita’s head whilst the moon shone under her legs. Realising that she had looped the loop, Margarita righted herself, turned around and saw that the sea had vanished: behind her there was now only a pink glow on the horizon. In a second that too had disappeared and Margarita saw that she was alone with the moon, sailing above her and to the left. Margarita’s hair streamed out behind her in wisps as the moonlight swished past her body.”

The Master is a writer working in Moscow who – among many of his fellow citizens – falls victim to the satanic Woland, who has come to Moscow with his coterie to throw his annual ball – and to cause a little havoc while he is at it. The Master, a gibbering wreck after all the strange things he has seen – including the apparent murder of his friend Berlioz – ends up in an insane asylum.

Margarita, the Master’s (married) lover is offered the chance of reunion with her beloved by the demon Azazello, if she will follow his and Woland’s instructions. She agrees, and becomes a witch, later to be hostess at the devil’s ball.

Interwoven with this story is the manuscript of the Master: the story of Yeshua (Jesus) and his execution by Pontius Pilate. Unlike the fantastical events in “contemporary” (1929) Moscow, the ancient story of Yeshua is told with a quiet, calm realism.

Sounds surreal? It is a bit. Mostly it’s political, although I try not to worry too much about that… What I mean is you can’t help noticing at least some of the allegorical elements, but I prefer not to dissect such things unduly, it’s not my way – I don’t want the novel to die on the table.

So I loved Margarita, adventuresome and courageous, and the only non-demonic character to profit by Woland’s visit – taking the bizarre in her stride, accepting the unacceptable, and demanding what is good from what is, to say the least, morally ambiguous. Big wow.

Here’s an Amazon link.
I already had a copy (I read it in a book club I was in years ago).

I admired my mother in some ways, although things between us were never easy. She expected too much from me, I felt. She expected me to vindicate her life for her, and the choices she’d made. I didn’t want to live my life on her terms. I didn’t want to be the model offspring, the incarnation of her ideas. We used to fight about that. I am not your justification for existence, I said to her once.

I want her back. I want everything back, the way it was. But there is no point to it, this wanting.

I finished this book a while ago, but I wanted to let it sink in before I wrote about it. I had been saving it, and I wanted to savour it. Of course, there is risk in this approach: I might have lost all impetus and forgotten what the book was about. Well, I haven’t.

The scenario is that in a world not too far into the future, there has been a religious revolution in the geographical area currently known as the United States. A fundamentalist Christian sect has started running the country and renamed it the Republic of Gilead. Faced with environmental pollution that has caused infertility and birth defects to be common, coupled with a revolutionary fervour for population growth, the men have set about structuring society so as to give population growth (and therefore uterus control) total priority.

Men fall into various groups, all carefully labelled. The Commanders are the most privileged, serviced by Wives, Marthas and Handmaids (see below), living in large comfortable homes, working in comfortable sinecured jobs. The Guardians – called Angels if they are promoted to the highest rank – are the men who do the work and they may be allowed an Econowife if they are lucky but most are forced to be celibate (unregulated sex is strictly forbidden and viciously punished).

Women fall into carefully labelled groups, too.

The “privileged” women form part of the cook-Madonna-whore triumvirate. The blue-robed Wives have the highest status (irrespective of fertililty). The green-robed Marthas – remember Lazarus’ sisters? – are domestic servants who cook and clean and do their work. The red-robed Handmaids have the lowest status, the least dignity, respect or privacy – despite having on the face of it the most “valued” role. They are the women who have been medically screened for fertility and whose role it is to become pregnant and to hand over their children to the Wives.* The Handmaids do not serve the men: they serve the wives. How bitter for them both.

(* Remember the story of Rachel? The jealous, childless wife – give me children or else I die – who in her desperation for a child gave her handmaid Bilhah to her husband Jacob for the purpose of impregnation. Further reading: The Red Tent)

Aunts are the women who train the Handmaids: their role is indoctrination, they are the circumcisers. Other women must be “Econowives” – women who must be wife and housekeeper, and bear children if they can. The least fortunate are the Unwomen, sent to do dangerous work such as clearing up pollution, without protection – the disposable nonhumans. The final category is the secret one, the unacknowledged one: the prostituted women, working in government-run brothels.

On the upside, rape and pornography have been utterly stamped out.

On the downside – everything else. Freedom from (rape, assault) has been achieved at the expense of Freedom to (live your own life). Nobody has much freedom and women have the least, fertile women least of all. Freedom of speech has ceased. Freedom of religion has ceased. Freedom of association has ceased. Reproductive choice has ceased: indeed, those who carried out abortions in the pre-Gilead days are hunted down and executed. Unwomen are entirely disposable and unprotected: these are the women who do not comply, the feminists and rebels, the worn out prostitutes. Unbabies – those born with some kind of defect – are disposable too: disability is not tolerated.

So much for the set-up.

Fundamentally – although this obviously is a powerful dystopian vision and a feminist masterpiece – what spoke to me most loudly were the words about motherhood.

Clearly, this is a novel about enforced motherhood of the kind that the Handmaids (and, come to mention it, the Wives who must rear another woman’s child and be joyful for the gift) are obliged to undertake.

But it is also about the motherhood that happened before the age of Gilead. It is about the narrator’s motherhood, and about her own mother.

The narrator – whose real name we never learn, although she is referred to as Offred (of Fred) – had a child before Gilead, a little girl. Her marriage is decreed null and void because her husband had previously been divorced; her daughter is thus illegitimated and taken from her. We never find out exactly what has happened to this daughter, although it seems that she has been taken to a “privileged” life, possibly as a future Wife. The narrator’s (I cannot call her Offred) yearning for this daughter is a key element of the story, and indeed is used cynically against her by the Wife she serves. Her yearning for her first daughter is used to overcome her near-indifference to any future child.

But, more, the narrator has a mother. This mother was an ardent second wave feminist (she was sent to be an Unwoman). She was a deliberate single parent – she insists repeatedly that the narrator was a wanted child. A wanted child. And the two of them were often exasperated with one another: the mother wanted a radical feminist daughter, at least a conscious daughter; the daughter wanted to live a life of her own choosing, a postfeminist life. So much for postfeminism. So much for radical parenting.

That’s all I have to say, except –
Are there any questions?

Here is an Amazon link.
I bought my own copy, obviously.

“Now, Miss Thompson has been telling me some very distressing things,” the vicar began. My heart began to thump.
“She has told me that someone has been calling names. We don’t have people calling names in the house of God. Come out to the front…” I waited for Michael’s name to be called. Now, I thought, God will show him how wrong he is, how bad he is to hate difference. But the vicar said, “Ada and Angela.”
At first I didn’t move, I thought he’d made a mistake.
“Come on out to the front,” the vicar said, beckoning us. Sonia pushed me and I stood up and walked to the front. So did Ada, slowly. The vicar put his arm around me and Ada. Ada held her head firmly on her chest. I looked up around me and saw Michael grinning. Then I dropped my head too.
“Now Ada and Angela and their families are coloured, but that does make them any different to you or me. We are all God’s children and in the sight of God, everyone is equal. Now we will sing the chorus together.” The vicar held on tight to me so I couldn’t’ go back to my seat. Then he began to sing “Jesus loves the little children.”
And everyone joined in…
When the chorus was finished the vicar patted us each on the head. Then he let us go.

In this compelling novel, narrator Angela Jacobs witnesses the slow death of her father and remembers the scenes of her own childhood, growing up in London as the youngest child of her Jamaican parents. The characters most strongly drawn are Angela herself and her parents – her father is so real you can see him.

I don’t know what else to say except: read it. It is real, unswerving, and funny too – as vivid a portrait as you could hope to find.

“You said it quite well” she said. “Just a bit more work on the screeching. Aint that right Nanny Ogg?”
“Very useful screeching, I thought” said Nanny Ogg, hurriedly. “And I can see Goodie Whemper, maysherestinpeace, gave you a lot of help with the squint.”
“It’s a good squint” said Granny Weatherwax.
The junior witch, whose name was Magrat Garlick, relaxed considerably. She held Granny Weatherwax in awe. It was known throughout the Ramtop Mountains that Miss Weatherwax did not approve of anything much. If she said it was a good squint, then Magrat was probably staring up her own nostrils.

Another fun read – what can I say, it’s the Discworld. They’re all pretty enjoyable, and all the same but very different.

This one features the three witches, possibly my favourite characters (along with Susan, who is Death’s granddaughter) who must save the Ramtop kingdom from a cruel, unstable and, worst of all, entirely indifferent usurper to the throne. All withot interfering in Politics, because everyone knows that a witch never interferes. Especially not with politics…

There are also ghosts, a reluctant Fool, some travelling players, many Shakespearean ripoffs and some other stuff. Yay!

Here’s an Amazon link.
I read a library copy.

I remember that the Gabilan Mountains to the east of the valley were light gay mountains full of sun and loveliness and a kind of invitation, so that you wanted to climb into their warm foothills almost as you want to climb into the lap of a beloved mother. They were beckoning mountains with a brown grass love. The Santa Lucias stood up against the sky to the west and kept the valley from the open sea and they were dark and brooding – unfriendly and dangerous. I always found myself in a dread of west and a love of east.

In this novel, Steinbeck weaves the history of his own maternal family (the Hamiltons) and the place where he was born (the Salinas valley in northern California) into a fiction, a retelling of the story of Cain and Abel. The central character, Adam Trask, re-enacts that brotherly rivalry with his brother Charles: Adam is better loved by his father; Charles takes his revenge. In the next generation, Adam’s sons Cal and Aron follow that same pattern: Aron is better loved; Cal takes his revenge; and there is even a version of “am I my brother’s keeper?” worked in, somewhat inelegantly (the only inelegant thing, I think).

It is often said that this is a book about good and evil. I suppose it is, but primarily to me it was a book about redemption. A major theme is signified by the Hebrew word timshel, translated in the book as “thou mayest”. The point is, that this is what God says to Cain when he puts his mark upon him – not that you MUST overcome sin, not that you WILL overcome sin, but that you MAY. Must implies obligation, will implies inevitability but may implies choice. Timshel is a word of blessing which offers not a command or a predetermination, but hope and freedom – the possibility of true redemption.

Finally, I can’t let this book go without talking of sinful women, the Eves.

Adam’s mother abandoned him by committing suicide immediately after his birth. His stepmother (Charles’ mother) was a sick, passive woman who did what was required to survive her loveless existence, and no more. Adam’s wife, Cathy, the mother of Cal and Aron, was a more actively sinful woman. She is described variously as a monster, as missing some essential human quality, as impenetrable, as inhuman. Her sins are many and shocking, the primary among them (plotwise) being that she abandons her twins immediately after their birth and runs away to become a whore.

The only other women to really feature in the story are Liza Hamilton (Steinbeck’s grandmother) and Abra (Aron’s and later Cal’s sweetheart, of whom her father frequently says: I called another, but Abra came – meaning, he wanted a boy). I see these women as Rebecca figures – assertive, moral women, but women who ultimately submit unquestioningly to male headship.

There is no depth to these women. There is no reality to them. There is a certain note struck in the sketches, a certain likeness to an underlying reality, but no interest in their stories or to what shaped them. Indeed of Cathy we are repeatedly told that there is no possibility of understanding her, not even for the author who created her and who therefore knows what happened to her from the day she was born. The author cannot understand her, and so she cannot be understood. Or redeemed: Steinbeck puts the mark of Cain upon her, yet she is Eve, and for her there is no redemption.

One more thing. There is another character, Lee, a Chinese servant to the Trask family whose wisdom, learning and care nourishes them throughout, in some ways replacing the absent mother figure. Perhaps I am struggling to hard to fit him into the Biblical theme, but I see him with his ng-ka-py as a kind of Holy Spirit, an intermediary between what is, and what ought to be – perhaps a kind of angel.

Hmm. Overall, a fine novel – if you like to have your men at the centre, and if Steinbeck’s portrayal of whores (as, on the whole, willing sluts doing a job of work) does not make your my skin crawl.

Here is an Amazon link.
I already had a copy, although I had not read it until now.

[Note: I originally blogged this in December 2006, only to find now that it’s in the BRP . So I’m changing the date, bumping it up and adding links at the end. Easy game!]

The Color PurpleI think it pisses God off if you walk by the color purple in a field somewhere and don’t notice it.

What it do when it pissed off? I ast.

Oh, it make something else. People think pleasing God is all God care about. But any fool living in the world can see it always trying to please us back.

This book was on my mental to-read list for ages – and with good reason.

It is a novel telling the story of Celie through her letters to God and, later, to her sister Nettie. She writes these letters because of what her Pa told her: You better not never tell nobody but God. It’d kill your mammy.

The letters tell, in Celie’s own language – the voice it seems of black people in the southern states of the US – of her life from the time when her Pa first rapes her through her loveless marriage to an abusive husband, her discovery of her own sexuality with the beautiful singer Shug Avery (short for “Sugar”, I think, and presumably not pronounced to rhyme with “slug”!), the missionary life of her sister Nettie who escaped the family home to live with the couple that adopted both of Celie’s children by her Pa. We follow her as she gains in strength and comes to know, against all odds, both contentment and happiness.

The women in the story are amazing. Apart from Celie herself, there is the powerful magnetism of Shug, the hardworking loyalty and determination of Nettie, the uncompromising Sofia, the blossoming Mary Agnes (“Squeak”) and others. They each shine out from the pages.

As for the men… Walker received a great deal of criticism for her portrayal of black men in this novel* – although I’m not remotely convinced that such cricism is justified.

[* I should point out that much – but by no means all – of the criticism followed the release of the film version which, I understand, misses out some of the nice bits about men. That criticism affected Walker so greatly that she responded by writing a book about the film about The Color Purple – The Same River Twice: Honoring the Difficult.]

It is true that there are some bad men in the novel. Celie’s Pa treated her mother badly, turned his attentions to Celie, and would have treated Nettie in the same way but for Celie’s intervention. Celie’s husband also mistreats her: marrying her purely as a worker to care for his children, beating her and using her sexually. Celie’s stepson Harpo would have gone the same path had he not been married to the extraordinarily tough Sofia.

But these characters are not one-dimensional, they have their own journey to make, and the negative portrayals are balanced by portrayals of better men. There isn’t much to redeem Celie’s Pa, it is true. But her husband (known through the book mostly as “Mr -“) learns the error of his ways, and he later becomes a dear friend. Harpo is straightened out by the women in his life and becomes a valued member of the family. Sofia’s brother-in-law Jack is a quiet man who loves his children and honours his wife. The adoptive father of Celie’s children, Samuel, is a good and respectful man who takes Nettie in and effectively rescues her. Celie’s son Adam grows into a fine young man.

This novel is about abuse that poor black women suffer when living with poverty and racism and misogyny. It is also about sexuality, spirituality and survival. But the backdrop is one of overcoming, and flourshing in spite of, abuse: and a big part of that abuse is that these women are treated badly by black men. That is not the only part, but the part that is closest to home. Walker could not have written this novel, or expressed what her characters go through, without showing some men* in a bad light.

[* And not just black men, either. For example, Mary Agnes is raped by a white man when she goes to him to try and seek help for the imprisoned Sofia.]

In the circumstances, the positivity with which many of the men in this novel are ultimately portrayed is remarkable. Yet what was remarked upon was, instead, the negativity with which the abusers were portrayed. How can one write about abuse without abusers? And how can one write about abusers in a wholly positive light? One can’t. The fact that some people have chosen to condemn the negative portrayal of abusers rather than condemning the abuse merely shows, to me, where their sympathies lie. It is evidently better for women to remain silent about the misogynist abuse they and their sisters suffer, than to talk about it and to risk an accusation of misandry.

And now well over half of my post about this book is taken up with how it is NOT a man-hating novel. Damn those MRA goons.

This book is wonderful. Everyone should read it.

PS Many of the characters in this book appear in others. For example Tashi, the protagonist in Possessing the Secret of Joy is a part of Nettie’s story – and the Olivia and Adam who appear in that novel are Celie’s children. I’ve got to go back and read it again now to see what other links I can spot!

Here’s an Amazon link
I own a copy.

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