Monthly Archive for September, 2017

The Heart Goes Last: Margaret Atwood creates a new world

Many of the readers in our group have had experience of Atwood’s creative visions of the dystopian futures we may find ourselves travelling towards. We agreed that she often takes concepts which are already beginning to challenge our world and expounds their possibilities to its extreme limits in order to make us consider the morality behind emerging social and scientific advances.

The Heart Goes Last, our reading choice for September, explores how the financial crisis might implode to completely collapse society as we know it and led to anarchy. She suggests that the wealthy could find ways to exploit the working classes to an extreme, where they may consider a form of imprisonment as a ‘good’ solution. The idea is not new; the masses giving up their freedom for safety. There are many other sc-fi and fantasy writers who have also created worlds where people give up free will to survive and protect their family life. They all point to the hidden horrors which people must ignore in order to remain in these constructed realities and thereby suggesting that there is no such thing as a free lunch. The rich and powerful will use the masses and bodies become commodities in these worlds.

AtwoodAtwood shows how far this concept can be pushed so that people’s bodies are no longer their own but can be broken down into parts and sold for multiple purposes. The imprisoned agree to their confinement because they have one month of making money and one month of living so-called free existences, however, once they are in the settlements they cannot leave and, as we see later, can be sent for extermination at any given time. Some of our group therefore considered how this book made them think about the Holocaust and therefore how human beings have already been treated as nothing more than the sum of their body parts.

We also considered the technology behind the novel and the moral debate over robotics. Atwood likes to explore current debates and the role of robots leads to questions about how suitable they are for certain jobs and if it is acceptable to create robots to do jobs that are considered damaging to humans. Atwood uses the sex industry to illustrate these moral dilemmas. The suggestion is that robots can be created to replace people and that this prevents people from being abused in this industry. She examines this in two examples. The first one is where robots of children are made as sex robots and the second is where the Elvis’ send in a sex robot to ‘finish the job’ when the clients they chaperone want more than a mere companion for the night. We considered how robots already exist to replace people in jobs such as customer care and teaching, and that there very well may be sex robots developed. Atwood therefore is challenging social mores and asking which is the lesser evil and if it acceptable to allow such behaviour under these circumstances.

The group took time to consider how the two main characters, Stan and Charmaine, change throughout the narrative. Charmaine starts the novel as a naïve and caring young wife who is making the best of frightening circumstances. By the end of the novel she has proved herself not only capable of murder, but of killing her husband in order to save herself. She has a hidden side behind the perfect wife which begins to emerge during the torrid affair she has with Max. We asked ourselves to what extent she was always going to be open to this behaviour or how much was she manipulated into behaving in essence out of character. Some of us considered what we knew about her past through her flashbacks with Grandma Win and the suggestion that there was abuse and possible incest in her childhood. These hidden traumas could have made her susceptible to Max’s advances and may be the reason she was chosen by Jocelyn to be at the centre of her plans. We also discussed how she was manipulated throughout the whole story and that in the end she realised that she had chosen to believe she had no free will as acceptance of the status quo was the easy option. One member of the group suggested that ultimately Charmaine’s character was just not believable enough and that she was too boring to be the central character. They did not believe that she could turn from sweet girl into damaged and corrupt abuser.

The ending of the book caused a lot of heated discussion as many could not accept the slapstick comedy as a form for engaging with the serious themes and considered that it did not work, not only as an ending but in the way it contrasted to the beginning of the novel. The point was made that the novel had originated as a short story and it was suggested that it was intended for serialisation which might explain the changing format of the story as the novel progressed. There was a consensus that the start of the book was too much in contrast to the middle and the ending. One member liked the ideas behind the book but felt it got lost half-way through. The ending was just too much for many of the others who could not understand how Conor could turn around from being the typical bad boy at the start into one of the good guys who was to ‘save’ everyone from a fate worse than death.

We discussed how there appeared to be a lack of consequences or resolution in the ending. No one was properly punished for their wrong doing, although we did consider how Ed’s new role as Lucinda’s sex slave might be considered as punishment, even if he was not aware of it. We asked if that said more about our expectations of what made ‘bad’ characters and if a novel should be working towards a resolution. The purpose of the ending was open to interpretation with a question over what was happiness and what was choice. Is the ultimate goa of a given society to have the greatest amount of happiness for the greatest number of people? Is the ending of this novel questioning that very concept?


Anthea Cordner

Ian McEwan in a Nutshell

This novel, which was our book choice for July, proved to have the uncanny ability to polarise readers in ways that none of our previous choices succeeded in doing, which lead us to decide at the end of this month meeting that you either love it or hate it. The only reason to sit on the fence is because it can be deemed to be both highly clever and very annoying at the same time. We all agreed that the premise of having an unborn child forced to witness the plotting and murder of his father was a very amusing way to engage with the themes and ideas behind Hamlet, but many readers found the narrative voice just too irritating to set aside their disbelief that a foetus could speak in this manner.

McEwan said the origins of this novel came from an idea he had during a particularly boring meeting where he was thinking about Hamlet and came up with the first line, “So here I am, upside down in a woman.” This was the seed that grew into an exploration of a very different take on the crime genre. We took some time throughout our discussion to think about genre and decided this novel could best be described as a murder-mystery farce. One reader commented how much it reminded him of ‘An Inspector Calls’ where the question about ghosts and reality only unravels at the end. Another reader focused on the many Shakespearean references that pointed to other plays such as the bear in ‘Winter’s Tale’. From the very beginning McEwan sprinkles clues that this novel is an engagement with Shakespeare and he starts by including the following epigraph: “Oh God, I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space – were it not that I have bad dreams.” In this novel McEwan’s Gertrude has become Trudy, the young estranged wife of the poet and editor John Cairncross, and she is having an affair with her husband’s brother Claude, who is a rather obnoxious version of Shakespeare’s Claudius. The entire plot is told from the perspective of an unborn foetus who represents Hamlet as he ruminates over the murder of his father. Just like in the play he is obsessed with Trudy’s immorality, which is described in a very tongue-in-cheek way, literally staring him in the face. Our narrator cannot get away from the “something rotten” which is corrupting his physical space and leads him to contemplate and attempt to “not be” by squeezing his umbilical cord to cut off his life supply. The fear of the afterlife here is not post-death but post-birth and so McEwan twists and plays with concepts of knowability, revenge, distorted truths, immorality, and the power of words.

NutshellThere were some members of our group who had entirely missed the references to Hamlet but found great enjoyment in the humorous play of words and ideas. We all appreciated the cleverness of the concept on which the whole novel rests, that the narrator has not seen the world outside the uterus. Several people commented on how McEwan never confines himself as a writer but likes to explore very different ways of writing, styles and ideas. that is not a re-telling of Shakespeare’s plot as we do not have all the characters and Ophelia is particularly noticeable by her absence. We all agreed that it was not necessary to try to recreate the characters and plot as McEwan’s intentions were more to engage with themes and play with language. Central to this is how he uses the restricted physical ability to see from inside the uterus to explore perception and play with truth and reality.

What was most contentious about the novel was the narrative voice. Instead of the innocent voice that could be expected from an unborn child, it sounded more like a middle-aged, middle-class, middle of the road academic. The language was unusual and we felt that, while it did successfully remind us of Shakespeare, it was debatable whether it was possible to move beyond the smugness and pomposity of the narrator to invest in the plot. Even if we suspended our disbelief enough to accept that a foetus could have some level of knowledge and understanding gained from listening to podcasts, how did this voice remain post-birth? It was suggested that having an adult ‘Hamlet’ recovering his pre-birth memories through some kind of regression therapy would have been more believable.

The plot is where we found most of the comedy and many of us loved the little touches such as the undoing of the murderers by the spiders inside the driving gloves, the slapstick incidences involving hats and glasses and the intricacies of how they used anti-freeze while suggesting in a Shakespearean fashion that it could have worked better by pouring poison in his ear. The restricted perspective of our first person narrator left us with lots of questions about who to believe, and if we were being told the whole story or a very distorted version of the facts. How did Trudy and John first meet, why did they suddenly find themselves separating now she was pregnant when they had been trying for this baby and why was she with such a terrible man? Many readers did not like Trudy or indeed any of the characters as they were all weak and selfish. We also asked who was the father of the baby as no one seemed to be claiming it or caring for it. Elodie’s character was the most enigmatic as there were so many questions about her role in the story. Was she John’s lover and therefore lying in order to entrap Trudy, or was she genuine? She certainly seemed to embody a catalytic purpose in driving Trudy towards carrying out their murderous plans, but it remained up to the individual reader whether we saw her as more than just a friend and writer of owl poetry. Whatever we ultimately think of her is coloured by our narrator’s fluctuating viewpoint. He may prove to be unreliable in many of his strongly held opinions but we are carried with him in the beginning as he holds her in distain: “she might be letting Trudy know that here in London she’ll be overnighting between John’s Shoreditch sheets. She’s staking a claim. I like the sound of her voice, the human approximation, I would say of the oboe, slightly cracked, with a quack on the vowels. And towards the end of her phrases, she speaks through a gargling, growling sound that American linguists have dubbed ‘vocal fry’.” (pp64-5) The duplicity of his feelings towards her are thus echoed in the sarcastic way he describes her ‘likeable’ voice.

One of the most uncanny scenes in the novel happens towards the end when Trudy invites Elodie into John’s study to choose a memento from his vast collection. The preceding conversation revolves around John’s thoughts on poetry and how he has instructed Elodie to “decide, decide, decide” and to “disrupt the beat knowingly”. In this short dialogue we learn a lot about John’s professional life and how he was thought well of by his peers but it is this very conversation which signals the beginning of Trudy’s downfall. McEwan plays with us during this scene by creating melodrama while continuing the farce. John’s library is described as “in mourning” and just as Elodie chooses a book of poetry the doorbell rings exposing Trudy’s guilty fears. The book Elodie takes away is Peter Porter’s “The Cost of Seriousness” which is a tongue in cheek pointer towards John’s supposed suicide and how hidden meaning can be found through the way words are put together. We talked about Elodie’s association with owls and how they can symbolise the route into hidden truths by gaining insight into ill-intent. Elodie may be the tool that helps to expose Trudy and Claude’s lies but her place in this scene is to suggest John was his own undoing: “the cost of seriousness will be death”. John was so busy playing with words and ideas that he did not see “the world as solipsistic as ever’. (Porter from his Collected Poems) McEwan describes how John was dismissive of modern poets and people who think they are poets, which leads the reader back to questioning John’s poetic talents and if he was actually any good at what he did, or if he was someone that elevated his status by quoting other people’s work. McEwan thus leaves us to laugh at the irony of it all.

The ending was not what many of us had expected and for some was an unnecessary anti-climax; did we really need or want the birthing scene? Our mini-Hamlet’s failed suicide attempt leaves him angered at his impotency and he is determined to find a way out of his imprisonment, but not before the murderers encounter the ghost of the dead father. This is the foetus’ ultimate revenge fantasy and he imagines “a terrible expression, both blank and purposeful” which overwhelms his mother. “He stands close before us, exuding a sweet miasma of glycol and maggot-friendly flesh. It’s my mother he stares at with small, hard, black eyes made of imperishable stone. His disgusting lips move but he makes no sound. The tongue is blacker than the lips. Fixing his gaze on her all the while, he stretches out an arm. His fleshless hand fastens on my uncle’s throat. My mother can’t even scream.” This scene brings the reader back to the dead king Hamlet demanding that his son take revenge on Claudius and Gertrude, while we are simultaneously caught up in the narrator’s “spirit of revenge in a secular age” and how he “never gets what he wants”. We see the revenge not emanating from the dead father’s ghostly quest but as the son’s need to see the criminals punished. The message however is clear that the helpless baby has no recourse for all he has witnessed and, on birth he begins to see the world is both as a dangerous place with the prospect of further future imprisonment. He notes that Claude is smaller than he had imagined him to be with a “foxy look” that turns to disgust when he looks at the new born. His first glimpse of his mother is also the moment when he knows the full insecurity of the world he has been born into; she is both loving and murderous. At the very moment of his birth he is thus propelled into danger and the revenge he so wanted will also be his imprisonment as he is dependent for all his needs on the woman who killed his father. Those members of our group who knew McEwan’s other novels discussed how he has explored similar themes of innocence and the vulnerability of childhood in his other novels. McEwan ends with the sentence, “the rest is chaos” which a parting nod to the Bard who inspired this novel by playing with Hamlet’s words, “the rest is silence”. Ultimately we enjoyed this clever engagement with Shakespeare and the very different narrative perspective that was employed in a farcical plot that was never meant to be taken serious but enjoyed for its puns and playfulness.


Anthea Cordner

The Gustav Sonata: magic or mayhem

Our reading choice for the month of June was Rose Tremains’ novel The Gustav Sonata, set in neutral Switzerland in the period of the Second World War, and which has been described as ‘a perfect novel about life’s imperfections’. There is however, very little neutrality to be found in this complex story.

Gustav is growing up with his mother Emilie, a cold and unloving woman whom he tries to please but who never seems to be able to return her son’s love. Gustav’s father Erich is dead and his mother describes him as ‘a hero’ but provides her son with no further information. A strong anti-semitic streak shows itself in his mother when Gustav makes friends with the musically precocious Anton, who rapidly becomes his best and only friend and confidante.

Yet Emilie’s miserable temperament wasn’t always so, and Tremain paints a picture of a young woman who grabbed her chance with the handsome Erich, but lived to regret her choice. Lacking in resilience, her life descends into poverty, regret and resentment, and she takes this out on her uncomprehending son, Gustav.

GustavGustav’s friendship with Anton is an enduring bond, with invented scenes and characters that spring from fertile imaginations. While Gustav as a young boy feels over-shadowed by his precocious friend, as they grow older Gustav grows in strength and ability, yet Anton’s talent is challenged and irreparably damaged by his own lack of emotional resilience, mirroring that of Emilie.

There are strong themes in the novel, a sonata of happiness and sorrow, and our group seemed to be neatly divided into those who appreciated the references to Mann’s Magic Mountain, the questionable neutrality of the characters and contrasts of light and shade in the characters’ lives and temperaments. The betrayal of Erich’s kindness is a shocking moment in the story, and a moment which the whole group felt was well observed and drawn out.

Some readers felt that the characters were poorly constructed, that Anton’s Jewishness was ‘sign-posted’, the musical and literary allusions oblique and the novel too bleak with a too convenient conclusion. One reader commented on the unlikelihood of the liberated female characters in the novel, as women of the era in Switzerland in reality, enjoyed very little power and position. Other readers felt that the dialogue was patchy, the author’s phrasing clumsy, and the story contrived and sugary sweet.

In contrast, one reader ‘felt’ the characters’ lives and circumstances and many others enjoyed the themes and questions raised, including the likelihood of achieving true neutrality which they felt the author had drawn out particularly well throughout the novel, comparing it with cowardice and allowing the reader to come to their own conclusion.

A number of readers in the group enjoyed the little snatches of pleasure that sat alongside the overall sadness of the story, and a concluding comment within the narrative from Gustav to Anton that

We have to become the people that we always should have been.


Rachel Orange