Recently Read: Atwood & Burnside

Posted September 24, 2015

Recently Read: Atwood & Burnside The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood
Published by Vintage Genres: Dystopian
Format: Paperback
Source: Purchased

This is the story of Offred, one of the unfortunate 'Handmaids' under the new social order who have only one purpose: to breed.

In Gilead, where women are prohibited from holding jobs, reading, and forming friendships, Offred's persistent memories of life in the 'time before' and her will to survive are acts of rebellion.

- from Goodreads

The Handmaid’s Tale is a book that I definitely feel I should have read before now. What prompted me to finally read it was reviews of Louise O’Neill’s Only Ever Yours, with many people likening it to a YA version of The Handmaid’s Tale. So before I got reading O’Neill’s book I decided it was high time I read Atwood’s first.

Atwood first published this dystopian in 1985. Reading it 30 years later, it’s quite terrifying how prophetic some elements of the book seem to be.

Offred is a Handmaid. Her job in life is to get pregnant and provide the more elite members of society with offspring in a world where nuclear disasters have severely impacted the fertility of its residents. Once a month a ceremony is performed whereby the Commander tries to get her pregnant. His wife is there, wrapped around Offred as part of the ceremony. Should she succeed and provide them with a child she’ll then be moved onto another house to perform the same service.

The story is told from the perspective of Offred, a woman who was formerly married, with a daughter, a job and a home of her own. However, the new regime means that as a woman she’s no longer entitled to this life, nor is she entitled to have money, to walk alone, to read or to have opinions. She also doesn’t know if her husband and daughter are alive or dead.

I found this to be a really fascinating read. From the matriarchal “aunts” who help to enforce the patriarchal regime, to the abolition of writing on signs, replaced instead by images; from the chanting of religious phrases, to the public deaths of those traitors to the regime. It’s a book that’s really rather terrifying and yet simultaneously fascinating. I enjoyed the way the narrative was told, the glimpses into Offred’s previous life as well as the progression of her character, with insights into her thoughts and fears.

Honestly, I really enjoyed this read. I wasn’t so keen on the ending; it felt rather abrupt but I guess that’s in keeping with the unpredictable nature of the story. If you haven’t read it, I definitely recommend it.


Recently Read: Atwood & Burnside The Dumb House by John Burnside
Published by Vintage Genres: Modern Classics
Format: Paperback
Source: Competition Prize

In Persian myth, it is said that Akbar the Great once built a palace which he filled with newborn children, attended only by mutes, in order to learn whether language is innate or acquired. As the year passed and the chidren grew into their silent and difficult world, this palace became known as the Gang Mahal, or Dumb House.

John Burnside explores the possibilites inherent in a modern-day repetition of Akbar`s investigations. Following the death of his mother, the unnamed narrator creates a twisted varient of the Dumb House, finally using his own chidren as subjects in a bizarre experiment. When the children develop a musical language of their own, however, their gaoler is the one who is excluded, and he extracts an appalling revenge.

- from Goodreads

After watching a few BookTubers talk about this book (Jen Campbell being the first of them), I was really intrigued and wanted to read this. Vintage have released some of their modern Scottish classics with new covers and I was lucky enough to win copies of them on Twitter so obviously I started with The Dumb House.

Basically our protagonist’s fascination with a Persian myth about a Dumb House leads him to create and experiment with his own version of the Dumb House, using his children as the test subjects. Keeping them in the basement, he isolates them from all but absolutely essential human contact and records the results. That’s all I’m going to tell you.

This really is quite a disturbing book. Yet it’s very readable; Burnside’s writing is beautiful. I found myself rereading sentences just to absorb the beauty of his writing, while actually screwing up my face in distaste for what was actually happening within the pages of the book.

If you’re in the mood for something disturbing, twisted yet beautifully written then give this a go.