Well, that was as soul-drenching as any double bill ever was (even though The Testaments is marginally more optimistic than The Handmaid's Tale).
It's not always a good idea for an author to revisit one of their standout classics decades later, but in this instance it clearly worked. Atwood stays faithful to the original tale while supplying additional depth to the world she created there. (Now it remains to be seen whether the TV series, in turn, is going to stay true to the story as set out in The Testaments, which is set a decade and a half later. Though I'm not sure Atwood herself considers more than a few basic facts from the TV series "canon" as far as her novels are conscerned.)
And Atwood has clearly done her homework on dictatorships, theocratic and otherwise -- which is, of course, a large part of what makes Gilead come across as so goddamned credible (and hence, so goddamned frightening). Like the authors of other dystopias (Orwell's 1984, Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451, Du Maurier's Rule Britannia) -- and also like Terry Pratchett in the first Night Watch novel, Guards' Guards! -- she points out that once a country's democratic foundations have been allowed to weaken, it doesn't even take a violent toppling of government for a dictatorship to take root -- and while she may have been inspired by recent events to revisit Gilead and write The Testaments, this clearly is at the heart of The Handmaid's Tale as well, as it is there that the notion is presciently first given voice.
I'm glad I went through both novels back to back, and Halloween Bingo couldn't have ended on a bigger exclamation mark. I also fervently hope the world doesn't even get within the equator's total length of Gilead, however; or rather, the actually existing theocracies will eventually be rooted out once and for all and no new ones will be added, anywhere on earth. Most especially and for the immediate future I hope the Western world will come to its collective senses and manage to make a U-turn from the course that it started to take somewhere around the mid-2010s. Heaven knows what the participants of late-22nd century historical conferences will otherwise have to say about us.
For my final bingo square -- "International Woman of Mystery" -- I've decided on a Margaret Atwood double bill: a reread of The Handmaid's Tale followed by its recent sequel, The Testaments ... if I can stand that extended exposure to Gilead, that is, and don't end up bailing out of The Handmaid's Tale halfway through. Even if I do, though, I'm still planning on reading The Testaments. Wish me stamina ...
Hooray -- what a relief to FINALLY be in the hands of an author who understands the absolutely terrifying effect of both a plague epidemic and the occult -- individually and, even more so, when experienced in combination. After a week's worth of reading books with (alleged) supernatural and / or mystery and / or horror elements that went anywhere from "nice but kind of nondescript" to "infantile drivel", it feels like with this book and yesterday's impromptu revisit of Agatha Christie's Regatta Mystery and Other Stories, Halloween Bingo is finally beginning in earnest.
Obviously, it helps that this book is narrated by Derek Jacobi -- and I think it says a lot that not even Simon Vance's narration of two of the Agatha Christie stories managed to get too much into the way of my enjoyment -- but by all the gods in bingo heaven, I sorely needed some quality grown-up, well thought out writing, and Hawksmoor is delivering just that ... in spades.
Wow. What a depressing read -- particularly so, the first half of the book (or thereabouts). We're meeting four main characters who thoroughly seem to be passengers, not drivers of their own lives, in a trajectory from nowhere to nowhere (and not necessarily a different part of nowhere, either) -- all set, as I said in my reading status update from a little over the halfway point, against a quintessentially late 1970s backdrop of cheap drabness (with the cityscape and office life mirroring the four protagonists's personal lives), occasionally contrasted with and punctuated by the visceral shocks of the psychedelic age.
Like others who participated in the buddy read, I felt by far the most drawn to Lettie; not only because she is the character whom we get to know the best both inside and out (and with whom it is thus easiest to empathize), but also because she is the one who most reflects about her situation and who is the most honest to herself
-- to the point of realizing, at the very end, that even at this comparatively late point of her life she does still have choices, however seemingly minor ones, and it is up to her and nobody else to make those choices. (Norman, by contrast, is likewise given a choice and though he does realize it for what it is, he ultimately backtracks to the status quo, only a more secure version thereof; and Edwin -- the most financially secure and socially "established" member of the quartet -- never has sufficient incentive to change the status quo to begin with ... whereas Marcia's path is one of utter self-destruction.)
Throughout the book, I kept finding myself comparing the lives of the four protagonists with those of my grandparents and my mom: The former, selling the house where they had raised their children upon my grandpa's retirement from his job in a federal ministry and moving into a (much smaller, but comfortable) apartment and into a financially secure and, health allowing, active final 2 (or in my grandma's case, 3) decades of their lives. And my mom, taking advantage of the generous early retirement program offered by the employer where she'd worked the final 2 decades of her working life, and making the most of it, with plenty of travel in Europe and elsewhere as long as her body would play along, and at 80 years of age still my opera-going companion and still in control of arranging her life just as she sees fit. -- And yet, only a few decades earlier (if my mom had not started but ended her professional life in the 1960s or 1970s), she might easily have found herself in Lettie's place, and the poorer for it.
This was quite a contrast to our first Pymalong read, and while Pym's fine eye for the workings of British society and of people's behaviour was again on brilliant display, I do hope our next Pymalong book will strike a less somber and subdued note again and leave more room for her particular brand of wry, gentle humour. For a novel of less than 200 pages in length, it took me quite a long time to finish Quartet in Autumn and quite a substantial effort to return to it time and again -- if it hadn't been for the buddy read, I might quite conceivably have DNF'd it, not because it's not well-written (it is), but because it is simply such a depressing book.