Review: The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

The Handmaid's Tale
The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The hype around this book gave me high expectations, instead, I spent the book waiting for something interesting to happen only to be left bored and disappointed.

Pros:

– The idea that everything that happened to women in the book has, in some time and culture, actually happened stuck with me
– Atwood’s way of using the final chapter as a history lesson was a brilliant way to finally get some answers but in my view, even this didn’t go far enough to give more depth into this murky world Atwood created
– This book is a great one to discuss, regardless of your own opinion on it, you can pretty much guarantee it’ll provoke a good debate in one way or another if you bring it up in conversation. Part of this is thanks to its insane popularity at the moment (helped by the Hulu adaptation that’s recently been aired) and partly because the book’s plot points, though presented in an extreme way in the book, are a good vehicle to talk about feminism, politics and religion.

Cons:
– The way the world switched from familiarly liberal to radically misogynist felt wholly unbelievable without any explanations as to what changed
– Similar to the above point, the book relies on constant guesswork to keep up suspense but in my view, it never delivers
– Atwood’s writing style and the use of an unreliable narrator (something that I always find irritating in any book) doesn’t make this easy reading. It’s not that the ideas or language is complex but the book itself is confusing and leaves the reader constantly trying to figure out the rules in this strange world.

First of all let me just say that I’m all too aware of the heated debates on this book, especially when someone doesn’t leave a favourable review. In fact, this initially put me off writing a review at all when the book is clearly not meant to be enjoyable for a general reader but instead is meant to be a social commentary that needs deep analysis before it really becomes interesting. After some thought, I came back to the reason I review books in the first place – if in 10 years time someone asks me about the book, I’ll need some help from past-me to remember the plot and my own thoughts on it straight after reading. And y’know, books are wonderful.

So, the book. My biggest irritation with The Handmaid’s Tale wasn’t actually the book at all but the hype surrounding it. This book is probably the one that’s been recommended to me the most by friends knowing my interests in history, politics and gender. For me though, it just didn’t deliver on any of the expectation and had I read this book without knowing its reception, I probably would’ve been apathetic to the whole thing and it would’ve ended up on its way to a charity shop or shoved in the back of a cupboard to be forgotten about.

Hype aside, the impression that I had after reading this book is that it’s main and best purpose is to be used as a conversation piece – don’t make the mistake of thinking that it’s a good book to read on a lazy afternoon as some light entertainment because it certainly doesn’t fit that category. Atwood’s fictional world isn’t absorbing and isn’t believable, despite the passionate fans constantly reminding reviewers who say this that all of the ways in which women are treated in the book are historically accurate to some culture or another. That may be the case but thrown together in a jumble of dystopian extreme misogyny means that, without the context of the historical elements, they lose a lot of their meaning and become a ‘everyone hates women’ statement rather than an insightful analysis of why/how they occurred, why they were unfair, how they were received, and how similar mistakes can be prevented in the future.

That being said, I found the final chapter a solid conclusion to such an ambiguous storyline and enjoyed Atwood’s commentary on how history is taught. It’s difficult to explain this without spoilers but as a history student, I found it a refreshing reminder of the gap between what is formally taught and the experienced realities of the historical actors.

All in all, I would encourage readers to open this book with a far more open mind than I did and to dismiss the hype surrounding it until you’ve read it for yourself and processed your own thoughts. As I said before, it’s not a book to read for its entertainment value that has a strong political message which is the mistaken impression I had got from friends and reviews, instead it’s a political book aimed at provoking discussion points and it’s the way it’s written makes that quite obvious from the beginning. Personally, I far prefer a book that is both entertaining and political or, at least if it’s political only, to be formally so as the guesswork involved in analysing The Handmaid’s Tale can be incredibly frustrating.

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Review: The Beauty Myth by Naomi Wolf

The Beauty Myth
The Beauty Myth by Naomi Wolf

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I imagine in the early nineties, this book would be revolutionary and I can see how it has became a feminist classic. In the context of 2016 though, the generalisations and the often cringe-worthy over the top language is a major let down.

I’d definitely recommend that every person gives this book a skim through (reading it too in-depth may excercise your cringe muscles a little too much) as the basic concept is interesting and still applicable to feminism and general marketing today. I enjoyed how Wolf also emphasised how this wasn’t a men vs women issue but a people vs media/institutions issue and explained how she believed the beauty myth negatively impacted men and women alike. It would’ve been interesting to also see how she believes it impacts children, though I suspect that is a much more modern phenomena, it’s frightening to see how the current trends of Snapchat filters and elaborate make-up routines are affecting children’s self-image. For me personally, that is becoming the stem of the problem and I think it will lead to difficult challenges for the generations growing up in a world of social media where everything is recorded and displayed as perfectly as editing and self-censorship will alow.
If anyone can point me in the direction of a book that covers that I’d be very interested to read it.

As for Wolf’s ‘The Beauty Myth’, the final chapter resonated the most with me. The idea that women should be allies with one another and not competitors is still a struggling message to get across in society. I know very few women personally who do not resent other women for their beauty in some way or who can confidently say they believe themselves to be beautiful. Though there is a gradual shift in this practice, particularly in feminist circles and in the ‘self-love’ movement, it does not seem to be reaching enough women and its message is often mocked or lost in translation by radical feminists. It can often be patronising and feel overblown – as if people are cheerleading a person’s successes/positive attributes rather than recognising/supporting them.
In my view this is a significant obstacle and can only be overcome by a universal acceptance that it is more beneficial allround to have a tolerant and appreciative attitude towards other women’s choices (as Wolf puts it herself) rather than dramatically celebratory or critical attitude. I look forward to being part of the generation that, with some persistence and honesty, will achieve that.

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Review: The Help by Kathryn Stockett

The Help
The Help by Kathryn Stockett

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Subtly Powerful.

The Help seems worryingly cliché at first but a chapter or so in, it transforms into something refreshingly different. We see characters that feel so realistic it’s almost too raw to read about their experiences and though at first the line between the ‘good’ characters and the ‘bad’ is quite clearly drawn, this quickly begins to blur as we learn more about the lives these women (both black and white) lead.
Now, let me first say I’m in no way trying to distract from the race issue that is at the heart of The Help here but for what it’s worth, all the women in this book are trapped in their own cycle of frustration. It makes for hard-reading when you see them express this by taking it out on each other when it seems so obvious to the reader that everyone is hurting in their own way.

“She looks as her fancy kitchen like it’s something that tastes bad.
‘I never dreamed I’d have this much.’
‘Well, ain’t you lucky.’
‘I’ve never been happier in my whole life.’
I leave it at that. Underneath all that happy, she sure doesn’t look happy.”
– Page 44

It’s easy to see why many readers have felt this book has failed to live up to the hype, its build-up is subtle and slowly paced which could quickly become irritating if you opened the cover expecting fireworks. However, if you put the hype aside, you can appreciate how the subtlety of the book is exactly what makes it such a powerful, vivid read. Unlike many other fiction books that tackle the issue of race in 60s America, The Help doesn’t try to shock you into feeling. Instead, it gently coaxes it out of you, one observation at a time leaving your thoughts to join the dots long after you’ve put the book down.

Go into this book open-minded (preferably without reading many reviews) and read at least 20 pages before you start judging it pre-maturely. It’s well-worth the risk.

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Why THAT scene of Game of Thrones’ ‘Unbent, Unbowed, Unbroken’ is necessary (SPOILERS)

The following article contains rape and sexual abuse triggers.

SPOILERS AHEAD if you haven’t seen episode 6, season 5 of the HBO Game of Thrones series, if you have or you’re not that bothered, by all means continue.
In the episode ‘Unbent, Unbowed, Unbroken’, we face the distressing scene of Sansa Stark being raped by Ramsay Bolton on their wedding night while Theon Greyjoy is forced to watch. Many took to their keyboards to complain about it, including a lot of feminists. Why? There are a few reasons that keep cropping up, the core one seems to be that it wasn’t included in the books therefore it’s just being used as shock-impact TV without dutifully respecting the sensitivity of the issue, another was that it ruined the character arc of Sansa. There was also the argument that it was oppressing women by normalising violence and sexual assault towards them. Some feminist websites such as the Mary Sue have said that this scene was the final straw and that they will no longer be doing any coverage of Game of Thrones which is understandable and we must respect the need for safe places on the internet to exist. Today I’m going to tackle the third reason for the uproar over this episode and offer my views as to why rape is okay, if not necessary, to include in Game of Thrones.

So let’s have a quick recap of some of the other horrors we have seen in Game of Thrones so far. There has been the stabbing of a pregnant woman in the abdomen front of her husband and mother-in-law, we have had multiple cases of incest which have often featured the rape of women. There have been many graphic torture scenes and such an abundance of grisly deaths that it has become a running joke. In the very same episode we saw Sansa’s rape, we also saw Arya on the floor being whipped by an older man. Bear in mind that each of these issues will personally upset people to different degrees since everyone has a background of different experiences, fears and sensitivities.

By no means am I saying this trivialises Sansa’s rape scene or trying to place it on some fictional hierarchy of horrific events but what I am saying is that of all these sinister scenes, Sansa’s rape is one of the most commonplace and realistic occurrences in our society. The fact that there has been such a strong reaction to it by those for and against the inclusion of the scene alike just shows how uncomfortable we still are as a society acknowledging that this does happen. To put this in some perspective let’s not forget that marital rape in the United Kingdom was only made illegal in 1994.

It has been long argued that using rape as a creative plot device in fiction is inherently a wrong thing to do but I believe the alternative, acting like it does not happen, is far worse. If the scene makes the viewer uncomfortable then in my opinion, good. Seeing the violation and distress of it in a fictional setting emphasises that this is a very real problem to those that feel unaffected by it. Many will read a headline about rape in the newspaper and pass over it with little thought. If two minutes of intense discomfort watching actors play out a case of marital rape in a fictional TV show results in more people being able to get a greater sense of the seriousness of what rape actually is then I will endure the inclusion of rape scene after rape scene in mainstream TV and fiction so long as it is handled sensitively and with the gravitas it deserves.

That being said, for many, scenes like these bring back the distressing memories of their own experiences, particularly when they’re shown in a very graphic and realistic fashion. The solution to this is not to censor anything that could trigger a person but instead, to ensure that there is adequate forewarning of what may be shown so a person can choose to avoid viewing a harrowing rape scene. Unfortunately, a system of doing this that works effectively and is used universally without giving away plot spoilers is far from being perfected.

To its credit, scenes of rape and sexual assault in Game of Thrones have never (to my knowledge) been glamorised. They have always shown the chilling horror to some extent and, excluding the scene in the sept between Cersei and Jaime (which is a complete exception to this post as that scene WAS unnecessary), they have always been perpetrated by characters we are meant to hate.

The rape of Sansa made people talk about the issue, it forcefully made itself linger in almost every viewer’s mind long after the scene cut to black. How many more people will now pause before making a rape joke or trivialising ‘just some drunk chick crying rape’ and realise the true gravitas of rape just because that scene happened?
For this reason, I am grateful that yet another rape scene was included in Game of Thrones even though it made me want to physically be sick.

It is terrifying and unfortunately, it is very much a real and frequent occurrence in our world.  It should not be left solely to the victims to face the realities of what rape is alone.