“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?

“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.

Invisible

This piece of creative writing is for the purposes of the competition at Ad Hoc Fiction. With only 150 words and this week’s prompt word, “blend”, this competition gives its winner free entry into the Bath Flash Fiction Award, which boasts of a prize of £1000! 

This is not my world. I am not part of it. Whilst the people rush by above me, loud with sound and colour in a mesh of endless chatter, I stay here. I crouch in the suburbs and hide in the dark, waiting… for what, I do not know, but I wait. I watch. I blend.

Occasionally I will meet my “equal”, skulking about beside me. We are not the same, though. We will never be the same. No one is like me. Whilst they tiptoe through the shadows, hiding from the busyness of the world, they are loud and clumsy. They can’t do it like I do. They do not become the shadows. They can’t blend.

They are the rejects, the outcasts, but they still belong. I don’t. I’m not part of this world. I do not hide in the night: I am the night. I am new. I blend.

Book Review: “The Lais of Marie de France”

Consisting of twelve short stories, supposedly composed during the late twelfth century, The Lais of Marie de France tells of chivalric knights and Arthurian wonders, an insight into the nature of love, as well as magic. It demonstrates the values of courtly love, a principle that viewed love not only as a suffering, but a social requirement for the nobility. As Marie notes in Equitan, the second of the lais, “how could she [the Lady of the lai] be a true courtly lady, if she had no true love?” (Equitan, 57).

One of the most memorable quotes from all the lais, however, is this: “love is an invisible wound within the body, and, since it has its source in nature, it is a long-lasting ill” (Guigemar, 49). This quote summarises the main content in all the lais, for they describe the practices of love, both true and adulterous, and the pain that they can cause.

In Equitan, a king has an affair with his seneschal’s wife; when they fall in love, they plot to murder the Lady’s husband by boiling him in his too-hot bath water. Comical though this may seem, the brutal descriptions of Equitan and the Lady boiling in the tub, for their plan backfires on them, are far from the comedic.

Bisclavret, delving further into the genre of fantasy, describes how Bisclavret’s wife imprisons him in the form of a werewolf by stealing his clothes. The wolf befriends the king, who treats him as his beloved pet, up until Bisclavret, still transformed, rips his wife’s nose right from her face, and the king thus discovers his true identity.

Considering this, it is fair to argue that the lais of Marie de France are exceptionally varied; this has been one of the problems for translators and critics over the centuries, for the lais were not discovered in one intact document, but pieced together, said to be written by the same author through the analysis of writing style in its original French dialect. In fact, there is no way to be sure that these lais were all written by Marie de France, or whether Marie existed at all; she may be a mythic figure such as Homer, her works, just like his, perhaps being collaborations of writing by multiple authors and poets. Whilst this may deter from the magic of The Lais of Marie de France, it may also add mystery. After all, these are influential tales that have had impacts on our fairytales, folklore, and culture, yet their origin is completely unknown.

Another interesting aspect of the lais comes back to the concept of courtly love. Whilst the renowned knights are admired for their heroic prowess and fighting techniques, they are never fully accepted by, or able to integrate with, society, until they find love. Courtly love was believed to be a requirement of the true knight, or Lady, of course, which meant that marriage was always to be expected. In my view, this is the true message carried by The Lais of Marie de France, and is one that ties the stories together in a way that indicates one sole author: love is a requirement of life, and, without it, one may never gain the wealth or reputation that they seek.

Honestly, I had no knowledge of The Lais of Marie de France before being handed it as part of my university course, and when I discovered that it was a collection of short stories, I was not altogether enthused; I was unfamiliar with this style of reading, and was unsure how to react. In truth, though, this is an incredible read, and I would recommend it to anyone. It deserves more fame and recognition, considering original tales that excite the mind and engage the senses. A reader must, of course, accept the clear misogyny of the time, noting how the majority of the female characters in the lais are referred to only as “the Lady”, but, once you are past this barrier, the true magic of the lais is set free.

Book Review: “Wuthering Heights”

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With its complicated themes and layered narrative, Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights is renowned for being one of the leading novels of the gothic genre. It is undeniably a fascinating read, if only due to the numerous character and plot interpretations that can be had from it.

However, you should not take this book on if you’re not prepared to be fully committed to the storyline. Lockwood, a seemingly unnecessary character, is, in many ways, merely a device for the story to be told through, and yet the first few chapters resolve primarily on his impressions of the Wuthering Heights building and its inhabitants. Arguably, this gives depth and a better understanding of the isolation that Heathcliff and his family experience, but, in many ways, the gripping story of Wuthering Heights doesn’t really begin until after Cathy’s death, and the relationships within the next generation become steadily more intriguing. One thing must be made clear, though; this is not a love story. It is not a cheerful, upbeat novel in which readers have no choice but to expect a happy ending.

Wuthering Heights is a brutal insight to the class divisions and xenophobia of the Victorian Era, its narrative intrinsically linked to themes of envy, betrayal and revenge. Some critics would even go as far to say that the famous couple, Cathy and Heathcliff, never really had a mutual love between them; perhaps Heathcliff’s insanity produced an entire relationship for his deprived mind to obsess over; perhaps our impressions of the perfect, untainted love between them are, in reality, completely deluded.

Story Starters: A Collection

My biggest problem as a writer has always been sticking to one story after I create the initial opening; it’s too tempting to move onto something new and more exciting! Here’s three story starters, varying in length, that I’ve, at some point, abandoned.

1) This opening story sentence is for the purposes of the writing competition at: Writer’s Digest, with the brief of a maximum word count at 25 words, and the picture prompt seen below.

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A snowy owl swooped low above the forest, invisible against the white trees, and ignorant, for little did it know of the danger lurking there.

2) The flames roared high above them, great waves of smoke towering higher still. They choked and coughed as they ran, ducking and diving around the broken infrastructure that now surrounded them. Time was running out; they were already scorched and burned in more places than they knew, the agony of their wounds occasionally causing them to contort their steps as they raced onwards. Great chunks of wall and ceiling were crashing around them, too, wires dropping down into the fiery mass and sparks exploding from every direction. The reality was that they had entered hell itself, and every runner accepted that fact with a bleak resolution. There was no turning back, and, chances were, there was no escape. Hell had become the endless corridor of fire that they now faced, and they were all too aware of it.

3) The sirens were louder than they should have been. Even before her body crumpled and collapsed onto the pavement, they were there with us, ringing in our minds and pounding in our hearts. Craig was bent over her, muttering to himself and beating the ground with his fist. Little Pete was at his side as usual, waiting for the directions that would never come again. I didn’t need to crouch over her as they did, though, because I knew. In reality, I think we all knew, even before we’d hit her; we’d known even before she’d been lit up in front of my car headlights and Craig had fought to avoid her. There was no use checking her pulse or breathing rate. There was no point, because Kelly Holmes was dead, and we’d killed her. We were murderers.

“We should run,” Craig breathed, turning to face us in the half-dark. “The sirens don’t mean anything. They could be hours away yet.”

“I agree,” Little Pete piped up instantly, not even allowing a breath between Craig’s suggestion and his own sycophantic plea for attention. I shrugged, but I doubted that they could see the slight movement in the darkness. I wasn’t going to run. I didn’t want to run. I was a murderer. I had to stay and face the police, no matter how devastating that would be.

“Dan,” Craig persisted, ignoring Little Pete. “We need to go, now.” I swallowed hard, feeling braver in every new cry of the sirens.

“Then go,” I whispered, looking not at Craig and Little Pete, but at Kelly. She was beautiful even now, her long, dark hair a mess about her shoulders and back, and her slender, ghostly form almost shining in the light from the surrounding street lamps. I’d known her since she was little, from when we’d played together in my back garden. She was dead now. She would never breathe again, never laugh, never smile. She was simply gone.

“Dan, they’ll get you!” Craig whispered, his voice slightly incredulous. I could not look at my best friend, though. He wasn’t like me. He wasn’t feeling this like I was. He felt only fear, whereas I felt only loss, grief and a furious, biting sense of self-hatred. I had done this. “Dan, you know what that means!” Craig persisted, shaking my shoulder now.

“If you want to run, run,” I snapped, looking at Craig at last. “Save yourself. You better hurry up, though. It’s been too long already.” Craig stepped back slightly, confusion edging its way into his fear clouded mind. He looked at Little Pete then, suddenly lost and vulnerable. Pete looked back, and suddenly they were no longer leader and disciple, but two scared boys: criminals.

Without another word, they took off, running in the opposite direction from the houses and sirens beyond them. There were fields not too far off, and after that, the forest. If they made it that far, they were safe. It was said that fugitives and criminals caked the trees themselves, living amongst the branches and leaves on the earthy floor. I used to have nightmares about the place, but for Craig and Little Pete, it had just become the last hope. Maybe, just maybe, they would be okay.

I looked back at Kelly then, and my heart shuddered to a halt, too.

Lean into Me

This piece of creative writing is for the purposes of the competition at Ad Hoc Fiction. With only 150 words and this week’s prompt word, “lean”, this competition gives its winner free entry into the Bath Flash Fiction Award, which boasts of a prize of £1000! 

An avalanche of emotion ripped apart my soul and threatened to throw me from the Earth’s orbit. I rocked and fell forwards, landing face down in the dirt where no one could see me. They tried to pull me up again, but it was no use.

I didn’t want to see them, I didn’t want to hear their voices, because they didn’t look like her and they didn’t sound like her. No one ever would again, because she was gone and I was alone.

Then soft hands were about my shoulders, gentle, but firm. They pulled me up and hugged me close, a gentle whisper telling me not to open my eyes.

“Lean into me,” she whispered, and, as I was reborn into my childish state, I clasped onto my mother with both hands, sobbing into her chest. I was alone, but I was home.