“The Heart Goes Last”: Book Review

When most people hear the name Margaret Atwood, they are most likely to think of her more renowned novels, such as Alias Grace and The Handmaid’s Tale, the latter of which has recently been adapted into a T.V. mini-series. However, it is important to remember that no author can be limited to only their most popular titles, particularly when they are responsible for as many as Atwood is. Canadian born, this writer has published more than thirty novels, works of poetry and critical essays, her writing reaching people in countries all across the globe.

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Virago Press, 2016.

The Heart Goes Last is actually one of Atwood’s most recent novels, having only been published in 2015. It fits into her genre of the futuristic, dystopian novel, by considering the fall of establishment and thus also the loss of societal order. What is particularly interesting about this setting, however, is that it isn’t necessarily futuristic. Whilst certain modes of technology may not exist today, it is easy to imagine everything that takes place in the course of the novel happening in our own time; from mass-redundancies to widening divisions between the rich and the poor, nothing described seems too absurd. Even when the events of the narrative escalate, and disorder becomes, not only chaos, but a dangerous place of uncertainty, these events are presented as cause-and-effect, gradually building into something obscene.

This said, what I deeply admire about Atwood’s style, is how she doesn’t go out of her way to describe the settings of the book. The reader is left to come to their own conclusions, at least initially, about the dystopian chaos that she never truly focuses on. Within the book’s opening pages, for example, readers are exposed to the harsh atrocities of Atwood’s world, her characters considering the gang rape, theft and murder that goes unpunished around them: “There’s been a number of former car owners flung out onto the gravel right around here; knifed, heads crushed in, bleeding to death. No one bothers with those cases anymore, with finding out who did it, because that would take time, and only rich people can afford to have police” (17-18). Comments such as these, which are presented as merely the characters’ absent-minded musings, reveal the true nature of societal chaos. With no fixed law and order, there are no boundaries. In Freudian terms, humankind rejects its super-ego for the sake of its id, once more controlled by the primal instincts that it shares with the rest of the animal kingdom.

Morality, of course, is another interesting issue in the novel. Atwood appears to impose an unusual inversion of values, suggesting that it is in the midst of chaos and disorder, that her chFullSizeRenderaracters make their most morally justifiable decisions. In this state of initial anarchy, for example, the female protagonist rejects the potential income of prostitution, stating merely that “it was wrong” (26). Later on in the novel, however, as chaos is replaced by order and a strict sense of authority, the moral decisions made seem to wither and disintegrate; it is almost as though, when the characters were exposed to the horrors of a fallen establishment, they clung onto their morals as a means of separation from the barbarity unfurling around them. When this primal nature is tamed, however, they seem to forget what they have seen, abandoning their morals for the sake of their own enjoyment. If nothing else, I believe this to expose to ambiguity of the human being. We fight to fit into the mould inscribed by society, but only when are close to losing it; the values that we were taught when we lived in an ordered world are a reminder of this structure. When we are comfortable, however, and take the order for granted, all we appear to want to do, is to defy it.

The Heart Goes Last contains twists impossible to predict, and questions that will leave you reeling. It creates a theoretical world that is uncomfortably similar to our own, but another thing that I wanted to focus on, is the power of imagery harnessed here. Without giving too much away about the novel’s actual plot, I will say that it is humanity’s nature to search for profit in any situation, even amidst the suffering of others. This capitalist gluttony is barely emphasised by the language of the novel, Atwood’s characters primarily just reporting their stories, without considering, in too much depth, the motivations and implications surrounding these events. However, careful imagery is promoted throughout the narrative, almost acting as a reminder of this theme. It is hard to ignore, for example, the inexcusable greed of a man who sits smiling at his table, whilst copious amounts of animal fat drips down his lips.

Although this is the first Atwood novel that I have properly read through, I can say that I am utterly inspired. The craftsmanship behind the language on the page is startling; all I can conclude, is that it is no wonder that Atwood has obtained the fame that she so clearly deserves. Of course, whilst I do strongly recommend this book, I must add that, as with many of Atwood’s works, it depicts very adult themes. Two of these, which are consistently evoked, are those of identity and desire; because who can retain a stable identity when nothing around them is stable? And who can resist desire when they’ve already lost everything that they’ve ever known?

Burnt Out

This short piece of writing is for the purposes of the competition at Ad Hoc Fiction. With only a 150 word count and a weekly word prompt, this week’s word being “burn”, this competition gives its winner free entry into the Bath Flash Fiction Award, for a chance to win £1000!


The rain beats heavy against the window, rapping angrily as though it is desperate to come inside. I see it as an angry loan-shark, beating at the glass as its greedy eyes stray towards what little furniture I have left. It wants to tear it apart, taking it away from me on a stream of gushing floods.

I turn away from the window to bend low over my work, trying to shut everything out as my paintbrush moves up and down, almost mechanically. I don’t have long here now. They know I can’t pay what I owe, and I know they’re coming for me, but still my paintbrush moves up and down, creating careful little brush strokes on the page.

Before me, my last remaining candle continues to burn. Its flickering and dying, but it still provides some light. When that goes, I will know that my time is up.

“Pearl”: Poem Review

PearlGenerally speaking, poems are quite difficult things to review. They can be extremely emotive and personal, their meanings subjective to the reader’s perspective and background. To review such a personal thing can therefore seem harsh and unfeeling. Despite this, however, there are some poems, such as epic poems and poems which act as stories and myths in themselves, that are today read through, not the lens of a modern day poem, but as a separate form of writing. Milton’s Paradise Lost, for example, is a twelve book epic poem, and can be reviewed and critiqued, regardless of the typical sensitivity associated with a modern day poem. This said, of course, Paradise Lost is still very personal to Milton, as he used the words and sounds that they made, to create a kind of tonal music within the poem, which reflects his reliance on these different sounds, after his loss of sight.

There are other poems which may be considered in similar, analytic forms, such as the less renowned poem, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. The author of this fourteenth century poem is unknown; all we do know, is that they wrote in Middle English, were, due to significant references, probably of the Christian faith, and that they likely did not only write Sir Gawain, but also three other, smaller poems: PearlCleanness and Patience. Although it has not been stated, by any surviving manuscripts, that these poems did belong to the same author, renowned critics have, over the years, all agreed that they probably did; the writing style, themes and patterns of writing are too similar to have been written by different poets. In this review, however, I will focus on the less famous poem, Pearl, which interested me for several reasons; for one, it demonstrates a metaphorical embodiment of the objectification of women, demonstrating the age of the patriarchy; for another, it explores the possibilities of a dream-like heaven world, considering not only the glorification of heaven, but also the economics of this Paradise.

Pearl begins by depicting a father who has been put “in thys del and gret daunger” (Part V), here meaning, ‘in grief and distress’, due to the loss of his pearl. He searches his garden for this jewel, whilst alluding to its beauty and perfection, for it was a “pryvy perle wythouten spot” (Part I), or ‘pretty pearl without a spot’. As the tale continues however, it becomes apparent that the man’s “pearl” is in fact his daughter, who died when she was an infant. Although the poet uses darker language at this point, interweaving the theme of death alongside the father’s primary narrative, the father supposes that “uch gresse mot grow of graynes dede” (Part I), or that new plants must grow from the dead, and that good may still come from bad. This prefigures the next few parts to the poem, as the father falls into a dream-like trance on top of his daughter’s grave, and wakes up in a what he calls “Paradise”. As the poem proceeds, he meets a queen of the Paradise, who he later realises to be the daughter he lost. She introduces herself as a queen, and welcomes him, but bids him to stop weeping for her, as God had saved her. She continued to explain that God had made her his queen, and that she thus had become a royal of Paradise.

The father, however, has issues understanding what his daughter is telling him, as he is focused on the human and the literal, forgetting that the supernatural defies the boundaries of human knowledge. She insists, for example, that she lives as Jesus’ wife in Paradise, which is the city of Jerusalem. The literal father has many issues with his, first complaining that she could surely not be worthy of such a position, when she had died as such a sPearl2.jpgmall girl, and had therefore had not had time in her life to be loyal to God. The daughter tries to explain that God excuses the innocent, and sees them as equal to the righteous through multiple parables, but then her father suggests that there must be worthier women than her, who could be Jesus’ wife. The daughter then explains that Jesus has a total of 140,000 wives, but that they do not fight or have competitions between them, for they are all worthy in the eyes of God. She even goes as far as to say, “bot uchon enle we wolde were fyf” (Part XV), here claiming that she wishes that every new wife were five new ones, as she alludes to the common phrase, ‘the more the merrier’. The father, whilst apparently not understanding how this many wives could cooperate equally, then complains that his daughter cannot live in Jerusalem in heaven, because Jerusalem was in Judea on Earth, to which his daughter simply says that there may be more than one of a thing at one time, and that God recreated the city for them to enjoy in Paradise. What the father unveils through this system of questioning, is the functioning economics of heaven, although he does not recognise them as such, for he only sees them as impossible and illogical.

This links to another theme which the poem seeks to highlight: dualism. This is the belief, first explored by Plato, that the body and soul are two divisible entities, which not only ensures that the soul will survive after the death of the physical form, but also suggests that the soul preexists the body. Plato even went as far as to suggest that the body was an obstacle to the supernatural duties of the soul, as it was weighed down and distracted by bodily desires, such as the need for food and sleep. This idea is explored in multiple passages in Pearl, but is most vividly demonstrated by the passage that reads, “fro spot my spryt ther sprang in space; / My body on balke ther bod in sweven. / My goste is gon in Godes grace / In aventure ther mervayles meven” (Part II). What this is essentially saying, is that the spirit (or soul) is separated from the body so that it can pursue its “aventure”, or ‘quest’ in heaven. This can only happen, however, once it is severed from the body and thus, according to Platonian thought, is released to pursue its true purpose.

The other thing that I wanted to highlight regarding the issues raised in Pearl, was the language of precious stones, and, in particular, pearls. The father objectifies his daughter to the role of a pearl as he searches for her, and yet this turns out to not be an insult to women, but a compliment, as Christ is later compared to a pearl, and pearls are described to adorn Paradise, present almost everywhere the father travels on his adventure into heaven. This is emphasised by the final two lines of the poem, which read: “he gef uus to be his homly hyne / Ande precious perles unto his pay.” (Part XX), which means ‘May He grant us to be his lowly servants and precious pearls to be his liking’; whilst the term ‘pearl’ may have originally seen as a way of objectifying women, it here becomes clear that to be Christ’s ‘pearl’, should be the ultimate goal of humankind; they want to be pearls without spots, just as God wants us to be humans without sins.

Although my own religious beliefs lean towards atheism, Pearl was still an interesting poem; this was my first encounter of the Middle English language, and it took me a long time to work through this poem, if only because I constantly found myself rereading sections and looking the majority of the words up in a dictionary. Nevertheless, the ideas considered here are unusual, and therefore intriguing. Not many poems attempt to describe heaven in such precise terms, considering its symmetry and beauty. The poem also indicates that the author of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, along with the other smaller poems attributed to this same poet, was a Christian. Like Paradise Lost, therefore, it may be fair to say, that whilst such epic poems cannot be assessed in the same ways that we judge modern poetry, there is nevertheless a personality to them that is interjected by the writer. Whilst some poets use their work to explore their emotions, fears and desires, this writer used their work to explore the possibilities of their faith, and to promote its importance amongst their readers.

“Accidental Damage”: Book Review

I was recently asked to review a self-published book by Alice May, called Accidental Damage; whilst this is not a genre of book that I have really explored before, this book really impressed me, and I have therefore copied my review below! Enjoy!

Alice May’s Accidental Damage offers a first-person account of the trials and incidents possible within everyday life; whilst struggling to raise four children and keep her house in order, the heroine of the story experiences her world, quite literally, crumbling around her, as her house begins to crack in two, and her insurance provider is unwilling to offer her aid. Blaming the misfortune on herself, the heroine fights to punish herself for the incident, as she dramatically burns her treasured art-works in the garden bonfire, and forces herself to give up her greatest passion for the sake of her family. This is a story about love, sacrifice and guilt, embodying a stream-of-consciousness narrative style to reveal the internal monologue of the heroine, as she fights to choose between her passion for painting, and the care and support that she feels honour-bound to provide.

The aesthetics of the book are very pleasing; the cover art, originally produced by the author, herself, dramatically represents some of the complex themes of the text; the swirling waters coincide with the disorder and chaos taking place inAccidental Damage the narrative, whilst also linking to the fluid nature of the heroine’s thoughts, as they are delivered to the reader exactly how they are thought by the character: constant and powerful, flitting from idea to idea as the heroine processes her various situations. As the author notes towards the end of the book, the painting also offers a glimmer of hope within the chaos, as the swirling waters are centred around a white surface to the depths, just as, within the chaos of the situation, there always remains that distant feeling of hope. The formatting of the book is also very interesting; as well as having short chapters that are grouped by numbered ‘parts’, which make the book more accessible, the author has included definitions following each chapter headings. These definitions offer a unique twist to the narrative, as they not only confirm the meanings, but hint at the content of the next chapter and thus urge the reader to delve further into the book. At the very end of the text, after the epilogue, the author has also listed “The Comforting Recipes of Chaos and Logic” and “Innovative Games for Bored Barbarian Boys”, which add a personal feel to the book and end it on a unique, pleasant note, as the reader is able to take something away from it. A further sense of intrigue is created by the book’s blurb, a series of questions helping to evoke interest about the story. These questions may not be perfectly executed, certain wordings within the content, such as “or has she?” may seem a little too cliqued, and yet, as this is a present factor within any blurb, this should not be treated too harshly. Overall, it is well-written, a small exert from the text providing an accurate insight into the main narrative, as well as revealing the harsh plight of the heroine, and how she was forced to live, with her entire, rather large family of six, in a tent at the back of her garden, until her situation could be resolved. If nothing else, this intriguing blurb could be a little longer!

The actual content of the book is superb; interwoven storylines of the past and present make it more interesting, for as the heroine reflects on her past, readers of the text are offered two separate narratives: the one of the nervous painter who cringes away from storms, and the one of the struggling mother, who camps out in her back garden and braves precarious buildings for the sake of rescuing her daughters’ makeup and her sons’ PlayStation. What must, arguably, be the most interesting factor about this book, however, is the presentation, and anonymity, of its characters. There are no real names mentioned in the text; the heroine always speaks in first-person, and gives nicknames to everyone she meets, even her Barbarian Horde of children, Chaos, Logic, Quiet and Small. These humorous, but descriptive nicknames, provide an entertainment factor, as well as a proximity to the characters that perhaps real names cannot. The existence of “Quiet”, for example, as an identity for the heroine’s eldest son, opens a narrative opportunity to discuss the characteristics of the boy through his quiet persona. These names also differentiate the children and give them bigger, more interesting personalities, through being labelled by such distinctive traits. The anonymity stretches further still, however; allusions such as “Structural Engineer Man” and “Loss Adjuster Number 1” provide what might be called a more honest view of the world. In moments of chaos, the workers would be only what their jobs made them, and their personalities would be ignored; their names are therefore insignificant details that, considering the nature of the crisis, are simply unnecessary.

The pacing of the book is also something to be commended; the use of short chapters makes the book easy to read and moves the pace of the main events on at a good, consistent pace. The same is to be said about the style of the work; due to the stream-of-conscious style of writing, where it is the heroine’s actual thoughts that are being presented to the reader, the short, snappy sentences that sometimes occupy entire paragraphs demonstrate the speed of human thoughts, and help to keep the story interesting as it progresses. This speed may be an issue in certain parts of the text, however, yet, due to the style of writing, is difficult to avoid; generally, the pace of any book would be much slower at its beginning, more than anywhere else along its narrative. This text perhaps deals with the opening passages too quickly, for whilst it is very effective how the heroine recovers her painting equipment during a storm, which arguably represents her inner chaos and personal crisis, the fact that she suddenly must recover the paints could be explored a little more thoroughly. Why does she do this at that moment? What really triggers her passion once more? Pivotal moments such as this could perhaps be slowed down a little to allow more textual explanations, allowing the text to seem more powerful and effective. At the same time, however, the fact that the pace of the book is consistent is one of its main strengths, as it does not allow the reader to become bored of the plot or too confused along its course.

Accidental Damage is well written, terms more complex than what may be known as the commonly spoken language, intermingled with standard terms, keep it accessible to a wide range of readers, whilst also allowing it to reach out towards a more sophisticated audience. If there is any issue to be had with the language and presentation of the narrative, it would be the existence of potential typing errors (such as those on pages 26, 127 and 218), where there are sentences such as: “The general consensus from all consulted was that it had stood for 350 years already it would stand for 350 more.” Arguably, this sentence may be missing an ‘if’ or a ‘because’. Overall, however, the writing style is erudite, working to create a very readable, concrete piece of work. Such small errors appear in most books, especially self-published books, if only because they have had less editors reading over them numerous times. Indeed, what this novel is, is very credible. The plot is not only interesting, but moving and haunting, particularly when considering the fact that it was based on a true story. What with the elegant mode of writing, the fantastic formatting and unique twists both within the narrative and its presentation, this is really is an excellent read. Because, when it comes down to it, it just is a good story: fast-paced, but relatable and genuine. It is therefore a book that I would happily recommend to anyone.

Play Review: The Taming of the Shrew

We all know Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet and Macbeth, but we are generally less educated in Shakespeare’s comedies. The fact of it is, though, that Shakespeare wrote more comedies than he did tragedies or histories. Tfullsizerender-1his review will focus on one of Shakespeare’s lesser known comedies, The Taming of the Shrew, which, in my opinion, has some of the most controversial issues of any of the Shakespearean plays.

The play essentially tells the tale of a rich man who is desperate to see his two daughters marry into noble families. The youngest of the two, Bianca, has many suitors, and is admired for her beauty and modesty. Yet her father, Baptista, refuses to let her marry any of these suitors until his older daughter, Katherina, has married. Unlike her sister, Katherina does not have a single suitor; she is outspoken, loud, and, in contemporary terms, unlady-like, or, as one suitor calls her, a “fiend of hell” (Shr. 1.1.98). The play continues, disguise and intrigue entering its narrative, forming what is generally seen as an amusing story, fitting for what was labelled a “comedy”.

Petruchio: And you good sir. Pray, have you not a daughter 
                     Called Katherina, fair and virtuous?

Baptista:    I have a daughter, sir, called Katherina.
(Shr. 2.1.42-44).

I, personally, found the above lines very amusing, but there are frequent periods of blunt comedy within the text, especially concerning Grumio, a servant to one of the suitors. Whilst not being directly named a “fool”, this is the role he seems to play, and strengthens the element of comedy in the play.

Despite this, the genre of “comedy”, in concerns to The Taming of the Shrew, has often been challenged. After all, whilst this is essentially a tale of romance, and thus presents the opportunity for comedy, it is a dark romance, the “shrew” in the title actually referring to Katherina, and the story depicting the “taming” of her outspoken personality, meaning that the end product of the play is a quiet, obedient Katherina who follows every word her husband says, her personality seemingly obliterated.

Petruchio, Katherina’s husband, forces her to endure several days without food and sleep, torturing her as a part of this “taming” process. Then, upon returning her to his father, he tests her obedience. He calls the sun the moon, and an old man a young maiden. Katherina, perhaps out of terror of her husband, agrees with him. This misogyny goes a step further, too; the very conclusion of the play depicts the husbands of Katherina and Bianca to have a bet, each claiming to have the most obedient wife. Petruchio wins the bet, having Katherina fondle his feet in front of the crowd, which includes her entire family.

Obviously, The Taming of the Shrew was designed for a patriarchal world where the woman was seen as lesser to man. The majority of its audience in the globe would have been men, and so it is easy to see why a play with what now is such controversial content, could have been, at the time, funny. However, this may look too bleakly on Shakespearean society. Whilst it is true that the play’s audience would not have the same views of equality that exist in modern society, for this was a time before the waves of feminism, many critics argue that not everyone would be able to laugh at Katherina’s torture at the hands of Petruchio. This is, of course, complete speculation, but some argue that the sexism is so blatant in the play, that Shakespeare actually uses satire to indicate the injustice in society, and, in this move, makes himself one of the first feminists (although he cannot be labelled as such, seeing as how the word “feminism” did not exist during his time, let alone a concept of this movement).

Regardless, The Taming of the Shrew is an exceptionally interesting play, if confusing on occasion, when more than half of the characters on stage are in disguise. It is funny, and it is thought-provoking; I would recommend giving it a read, or else checking to see if there are any recent performances of the play, seeing as Shakespeare was meant to be heard, not read on a page.

Note: the quotes in this post use line references from the Norton edition of the play:
Shakespeare, William. The Taming of the Shrew. Edited by Dympna Callaghan, Norton, 2009.

“What is a Novel?” / Book Review: “Roxana”

One of the most important questions in literature, and yet one which is rarely asked, is, “where did the novel come from?”. Many assume that it has always been there, supposing, perhaps that it is a term as easily associated with J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books, as it is with Homeric epic. Whilst the majority of us never discuss the issue, the fact of it is that the novel hasn’t always existed. After epic poetry, lyrical poetry emerged, preceding Romances and Shakespearean plays: texts that we would never attribute with the word novel. In fact, the ‘first’ novel is claimed to be Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe.

Whilst this may be an odd assumption to make about what is now such a wide branch of literature, Daniel Defoe did something in literature that had never been done before; he brought a sense of realism to his work that transported his readers, causing them to clearly picture Crusoe’s marooning on that desert island, and to take it as fact. This is because Robinson Crusoe wasn’t published under the name of Defoe at all, but the name of Crusoe; the novel is the character retelling his story, Defoe insisting that the story is fact throughout the narrative. In modern novels, this trait no longer exists; we do not read Wuthering Heights and take it as a true story written by Cathy Linton, or believe that Frodo Baggins wrote The Lord of the Rings trilogy. In fact, what we now consider a genre with the biggest flexibility for fantasy, is one rooted in nonfiction.

Defoe did something else unusual in Robinson Crusoe too, but I want to talk about this in connection to his lesser known novel. Still one of the first ‘novels’ of the genre, and a text published under Defoe’s anonymity, Roxana reveals the true meaning of what such a text once was. It tells the story of a French lady who moves to England, in order to find a new identity for herself. She addresses her audience, telling her own story, as her first husband disappears, leaving her an assumed widow in a state of extreme poverty. Having to give up her children and marry for wealth, Roxana soon realises the satisfaction in being an unmarried woman. She becomes promiscuous, a mistress to many a rich man as she raises her own fortune and lives, for the most of the novel, independently of men.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Roxana, however, is this second trait of the traditional novel that I mentioned earlier. Defoe included a precision that hadn’t really been seen in literature before this. Roxana records everything in the text, from the exact profit of her dealings, to the exact times and locations which she refers to as she travels about Defoe’s world. This novel was published in 1724, following on from texts like Milton’s epic, Paradise Lost, and, of course, Shakespeare, himself. Whilst such texts may include the locations of scenes, or give vague descriptions of the time of day, they left no room for the thorough explanation of the facts that Defoe allowed for. In fact, what with the anonymity of Roxana, combined with an inclusion of such precise facts that the first assumption would be that the tale is true, it is clear that the traditional novel barely resembles what we now assume it to be. As Defoe remarked in the preface of Roxana, “the foundation of This is laid in Truth of Fact: and so the Work is not a Story, but a History”.

On a side note, I would thoroughly recommend Roxana to anyone who enjoys a good story; due to the realism of the work, it is easy to relate to the character, readers both condemning her for her crimes, and admiring her for her determination to have her own rights in a protofeminist world. It is also worth appreciating the age of a work that is centred around a female protagonist, and the scandal that is included. Whilst we may now see the novel as an authoritative symbol of knowledge and wealth, the novel was once seen as something sordid and dirty.

The only issue many readers seem to have with the text is its ending; some argue that the novel wasn’t ready to be a novel when Defoe composed it, as the narrative appears to trail into nothingness. However, if you like a sense of mystery after reading a book, unsure of whether a character lives or dies, this is a book that can only satisfy, as well as intrigue, your senses.