Thursday, March 12, 2020

Booker Book-Ends, 2019

Even though the committee expressly made a rule forbidding this the last time it happened, it has happened again: two books shared the Booker Prize this year.

Girl, Woman, Other, by Bernardine Evaristo

This book is a symphony, or a patchwork quilt, or an epic poem, or a kaleidoscope, of the many different lives and identities of black British women. There are lesbians and straight women, cisgender and transgender, women who embrace their African ancestry and women who try to pass. They are bankers, artists, housewives, and students of life, and they are all interconnected. An eye-opener for this white woman, a reminder of how different and yet how alike we all are.

This was the pithy review I posted on Goodreads. My views on The Testaments, by Margaret Atwood, are somewhat more conflicted, and require a longer post. 

The Handmaid's Tale is a classic of speculative fiction, a must-read, a book I have taught to high-schoolers. It's not just a chillingly plausible story about how a right-wing religious group takes over the government and steals women's rights to do or own anything, down to their names. It's also a carefully constructed dystopian world in the not-too-distant future, that has inspired a hit TV show (which I can't watch, because it will necessarily deviate from the book, and that will just annoy me). On top of all that, it's full of clever word play, and includes two characters who play Scrabble. 

So I was very excited when I heard that Atwood had finally written a sequel, and was happy to return to the world of Gilead -- as a reading visitor, of course, not a resident {shudder}. We learn what happened to Baby Nicole, the child that was taken from protagonist Offred. And we meet other young women in Gilead who would be about her age, and through them, we learn much more about the educational system (what little there is) for girls in Gilead. Most are married off, of course, but some become missionaries, and some of the smarter ones join the Aunts.

Speaking of Aunts, the biggest shocker, I think, is what we learn about Aunt Lydia (SPOILER ALERT!!! - skip this paragraph if you don't want to know.) Aunt Lydia is actually a subversive, destroying the system from within, sending out spies disguised as missionaries. This is the part of the book that I'm conflicted about: Lydia was just a mean old bitch in the first book. Reframing her as a "good guy" is a big pill to swallow, and I'm afraid it might just be a bit too facile.

On the whole, this book suffers from the problems many sequels do: the excitement of the first book is in the world-building and the conflict between character and society; here, in book two, those are a bit stale. I am grateful for the sequel, but not convinced it's worthy of book one. 

So if you loved The Handmaid's Tale and want more of Atwood's frighteningly plausible speculative fiction, I would highly recommend the MaddAddam series, starting with Oryx and Crake

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