I’ve got a long history with Margaret (or Peg as her friends call her). I think I even wrote a university essay on her first book, ‘Surfacing’, and I’ve read her books over the last almost-three decades at various important times in my life. So, I think I’m objective when I say that I didn’t much like this latest novel.
Yes, I think the theme is interesting: prisons, imprisonment, the rampant greed that controls our society (and covers up crime and tragedy). Another main theme of jealousy and betrayal I feel she’s treated in a much more interesting way in her books about friendship, say ‘The Robber’s Bride’. And I admit that part of the problem may have been that I read the short excerpts of this book a year or two when they were first published, so neither the theme nor story felt new, because I’d been introduced to them already.
The main problem for me lies in the protagonists. Atwood has created many amazing heroes in her books. They are often subversive and witty, sarcastic but humane. There often is a real heroes’ journey as well: to uncover a mystery, to understand the past or why a friendship or relationship has been lost, to find freedom, to survive. I was blown away by both the narrators and the stories in her last two novels, ‘Oryx and Crake’ and ‘Maddadam’.
But in this book, Atwood’s created (purposely, obviously) a somewhat dimwitted couple. She allows Charmaine to think in metaphors like ‘she would have melted like a microwaved Popsicle at his smallest touch’. Charmaine constantly remembers advice from her cheery grandparents, though says ‘Sometimes she wishes Grandma Win would bug off out of her head.’ Mostly though, she’s a Pollyanna, a foil to the more cynical Stan who is maybe ‘ungrateful by nature’ and has some insight that his desires are ‘plain bone-ass dumb’ but still, whose compulsion is for Charmaine to be dirtier and more enthusiastic in sex, or to find a woman who is dirtier and more enthusiastic than Charmaine is. Some heroes’ journey. He also has a tendency in his head to wish violence upon women (possibly men too), which I found distasteful. Jian Ghomeshi anyone?
The other drive of the story – a controlled environment or society, a resistance movement, people who can help free trapped people – well, that just seemed a lesser version of Atwood’s classic The Handmaid’s Tale’.
Still, what I’ve always loved about Atwood is her readability and though this was a miss for me, I’m not sorry to have read it, partly because so many of my friends are fans of hers and we’ll be able to share with each other what we thought of it.