I’ve read three novels so far, in snippets of time stolen late at night or while the kids are in swimming lessons or otherwise engaged (while I’m employing a parenting strategy my mother calls “benign neglect”) All of the novels have been a little darker than I anticipated. I’m a sucker for a happy, or at least hopeful, ending. Today I finished Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. The ending is abrupt, not happy, but not entirely hopeless either. It left be unsatisfied, wanting more, but I think that’s the point.
I’ve had this book on my reading list for years, and now that I’ve read it, I think I held off, subconsciously, because I suspected it would be dark in a way that sets me off. It is so: it leads one down an imaginary but still fearful path. I am a woman of too many fears, and I cnnot afford to feed them. This book might be just a wonderful literary experience for many, but for readers like me, it is like lighting a match in a dark corner of the mind, perhaps to shine on a box better left unopened, territory best left unexplored. The specifics are easy to summarize: dystopian, female-centered, dealing with matters of the heart: friendship, love, family, and what is left behind when everything is taken from you. The impact of a book like this is personal and therefore varied, but its exquisite details are sure to hit you at one point or another. As for me, I would really appreciate a warning label on books containing child loss; a little something from the Surgeon General with a brief reminder would suffice: this book will spear your soul.
At the same time, I do appreciate literary skill more than sentimental self-soothing, so here, I want to tune into some of the things I love about this book.
One subtle strength is the way Atwood touches on acts of coded communication when more direct forms are too dangerous.
There is something subversive about this garden…, a sense of buried things bursting upwards, wordlessly, into the light, as if to point, to say: Whatever is silenced will clamor to be heard, though silently.
I thought about this passage this morning as I ran, a couple of quick miles squeezed in while the kids were working on their summer workbooks after breakfast. I run down the main road, past where the river flooded a couple of years ago, where they’re still working on the construction of the new bridge. I wait while early morning traffic funnels its way through, then cross the street towards the river road, down where the logs are gathered and chopped, already pointing towards winter. There is something comforting about the stacks of wood, piled neatly, awaiting transport. I know that some of them will end up on my mother’s porch, that she will carefully tend the stove in the kitchen while the new heating system will rarely be used.
It is when I reach the long meadow, past the smaller bridge and the quarry where locals sometimes shoot their guns, that I remember the subversive gardens. What is it that calls up their image? Is it the rows of corn, some already tall enough to reach my knees, that stretch as far as I can see? They will soon be big enough for someone to get lost in, or be hidden in, depending on how you look at it. Whenever I reach this place, there are two feelings that greet me. There is the one of peace, calm, quiet, distance and solitude. Then there is the slow panic I must quell that says I am too far from others to be heard, seen, found, if something were to happen. Most women who run know these two states, I imagine, and somehow, thinking about a subversive garden helps me focus on each step I take forward and on the strength in my legs that carries me.
Atwood is in love with words, and that alone makes the book worthwhile. In a world where playing Scrabble is a seditious and racy act, there are plenty of moments where narrator and author celebrate the wonder of words. What hooked me on the first page was neither setting nor character; it was the use of one word: palimpsest. A delicious word, the kind you can not define easily–but recognize fully. To play with language is a luxury, which is precisely the point. If the reader’s job is in part to decode unspoken messages, it is also to appreciate the beauty, the gift, and the power of words.
We cannot forget happiness, of course; I must always be alert in my search for it.
He put his arms around me. We were both feeling miserable. How were we to know we were happy, even then? Because we at least had that: arms around.
Atwood offers us the possibility of learning from others’ losses, yet the novel also demonstrates how terribly difficult the task of embracing happiness can be, simply because it presents itself in contexts, contexts that shape themselves around what is not as much as they do around what is.
My favorite passage in the book–the one that made me happiest, really– is the one where the narrator falters in her narrative, appealing directly to the reader/listener to understand the limits of her story, and of herself.
I wish this story were different…I’m sorry there is so much pain…I’m sorry it’s in fragments, like a body caught in crossfire or pulled apart by force. But there is nothing I can do…
Truth be told, I’m as much a sucker for fragmented, traumatized, self-conscious narratives as I am for happy endings. This story is not fragmented, really, but it wants to be, to represent the actual body and voice of the narrator, which are literally caught and pulled apart. The hope here, the possibility of happiness, comes in the clarity of the voice, the ability to look back and know that happiness was once hers, and that part of that happiness was its very ignorance of itself.
I’m still sitting with this book, with what it has to teach me. I like it when a book lingers or reminds you of something you once knew or once felt was important to remember. A palimpsest, if you will: one of paradoxical truths surfacing and resurfacing in language, in rows of corn, in footstep after footstep as I move forward. Towards what? Happiness, I hope, or at least a greater capacity to notice and appreciate it. For now, it is enough that I am moving, that I am reading, and that I am listening to whatever messages I can hear.
This afternoon, I walked the road to the long meadow again with my daughter, who was upset and needed some one on one attention. I want her to learn to be careful, but not fearful, to appreciate her own strength without having to lose it first. Holding her hand in mine, I told her how beautiful she is to me, how much joy there is in the world for her to find.
I’ve tried to put some of the good things in as well. Flowers, for instance, because where would we be without them?
There is nothing quite so lovely as walking hand in hand with someone you love. Free and I picked Queen Anne’s lace, which she put in my hair, and we walked slowly, taking in the summer heat.