My ongoing quest to escape this dreary world while actually staying in it continues apace. A few less books read this month than in January, but this is primarily down to my current immersion in Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, which is absolutely enormous.
Here then are the books I finished in February, and very enjoyable they were too.
The Burning Page, Genevieve Cogman – The third and (for now) final book charting the pacey, nonsensical adventures of the interdimensional Librarian Irene and her apprentice Kai. It’s fast, furious, doesn’t take itself too seriously, and takes itself exactly seriously enough. This time around Irene’s nemesis returns from the first book to threaten the Library between worlds (also, All of Time and Space, probably) with destruction through the construction of an ENORMOUS MacGuffin that can only be destroyed using the power of PSUEDOSCIENCE ITSELF! None of that matters, because this is much fun. It’s escapism done well, with no hint of an apology for being very silly, and taken on those terms it’s intensely likeable.
The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood – I originally read The Handmaid’s Tale in school while I was studying for my GCSE’s, and so had it ticked off in my head as a thing that I had done. Recently, with the rise of the Tangerine Behemoth in that America and the constant citing of this book (and 1984) in the media as a point of reference, I found myself thinking back on it and realised I didn’t remember as much as I thought. I recall at the time being fascinated by the concepts, but struggling to picture OfFred’s world.
A very basic summary of the content after my revisit. When the white religious Right seize control of America women are stripped wholesale of their rights and put to work in various capacities. OfFred is a handmaid, her role to enter the household of a high status male and provide breeding services (caucasian fertility having been vastly reduced by various toxins in the environment). The novel is OfFred’s possibly unreliable account of her time in this role. It’s a direct and matter-of-fact telling (sprinkled with Atwood’s deft linguistic poetry) that’s sometimes compelling and sometimes infuriating. OfFred is a woman trapped entirely by her circumstances. This is no heroic tale of rebellion, but one where tiny and pathetic subversions are the greatest protests that can be achieved. Her lack of agency is both the point and the problem for a casual reader. She is difficult to admire and easy to pity – all of your narrative instincts demand that a person in this sort of story find a way to fight back, but the credibility of the character and the world she lives in makes this a vain hope. The deep frustration this causes in the reader is one of the factors that make the book so powerful and authentic. You’re cleverly manipulated into feeling every bit as frustrated and trapped as OfFred. She has no agency. Things happen to her that she can’t control, be they good or bad, and she can do nothing but accept the circumstances she finds herself in. This holds true even at the story’s open-ended conclusion, which offers neither resolution nor catharsis.
What remains is a vignette writ large of a chilling, totalitarian world just a couple of left-turns away from our own, with as many horrifying implications between the lines as within. It’s fascinating, infuriating, and is if anything more powerful now than it was when it was first written. Reading it in 2017, I no longer struggled to picture OfFred’s world. It looks remarkably similar to our own.
Station Eleven, Emily St. John Mandel – Functioning as both a post and pre-apocalyptic novel, and perfectly comfortable in both positions, Station Eleven is a remarkable and sweeping story following characters and their legacies across more than two decades. It begins with the death on stage of actor Arthur Leander two days before a staggeringly fast and brutal flu pandemic decimates humanity, then darts back and forth through time, showing Arthur’s life and that of those around him, and following their ripples through to the far side of the end of the world where a group of travelling players wander North America performing music and Shakespeare to the communities that survive.
Despite considering a potentially grim period for humanity, the novel steers far clear of the usual desolation and bleakness you might expect from such fare. Sections set before the flu are considered vignettes of all that will be lost, yes, but they’re so character driven that they come alive as their own distinct part of the whole. The story has no interest in mawkish poignancy, and while the cuts between past and future eras highlight their differences they avoid any implications that either is better or worse. The period of the flu is seen briefly and sporadically throughout the book, but more time is spent two decades after, when life has normalised and the reduced circumstances of the species are the new normal. There’s tension here and there, even sharp, brief segues into horror, but these are ever in service of a larger examination of hope and human nature and never the point in and of themselves.
What binds the disparate sections of the book into a whole is humanity itself, and how it reflects itself in art and life. Shakespeare. Beethoven. An unfinished graphic novel that gives the book its title. The stories people tell themselves about who they are and who they could be permeate the page. Mandel writes wonderfully, lingering on details here and there, dragging her large cast along when it’s required. For a book that covers such ground with such conviction this is a fast read, and one that it is hard to let go of come the end. Like the very best post-apocalyptic fiction (and this is the most affecting such tale that I’ve read since The Road), Station Eleven functions not to highlight horrors but to give a platform for hope. It’s extraordinary, and whether genre fiction is your thing or not you should give this one a go.