Welcome to July’s Moncur’s Must-Reads! This month, I’m chatting about two books which are old releases that I’ve only just got around to reading but wish I had sooner. Enjoy!
#1 The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
The protagonist, Offred, dreams of a former life, one where she lives with her husband Luke and picks her daughter up from school; one where she has a job and makes her own living; one where women can read books and magazines whenever they choose. This life haunts her as she takes on her new purpose: to reproduce. She dons her dress of the brightest red and can only try to forget that which came before the Gilead regime; to forget it before it haunts her to death.
I was in a bit of a reading slump before picking up The Handmaid’s Tale which had been sitting on my ‘to be read’ pile for quite a long time. It’s the first Margaret Atwood novel I’ve read (I knew I was late to the party, but I didn’t realise it was first published in 1985!) and she truly delivered, taking me right out of my slump! I couldn’t put the book down and sat in my back garden until my toes started turning blue with the cold.
It has one of the most consuming narratives I’ve read in a while and I love the way it skips between the past and present within its chapters, providing snippets of these separate lives which feel aptly disjointed yet build a haunting bigger picture. Offred’s internal world is so well developed and her experience is terrifying: I simultaneously loved and hated imagining everything changing in a split second to an extreme patriarchal world that isn’t as far as you’d hope from reality; a world where women are reduced to their biology, controlled by their reproductive systems and reliant on men’s power.
The novel reminded me of other dystopian classics like George Orwell’s 1984, Adolphus Huxley’s Brave New World and Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go – but make them full blown feminist. It’s engaging, pacey and an intimate read which intelligently and provokingly reflects the issues in our society in an incredible amount of detail. Atwood is an utter genius!
The Handmaid’s Tale is a perfect, haunting combination of dystopia and what feels like historical fiction, creating a terrifying and not-too-distant future in an oppressive totalitarian America. The book was over far too quickly for me and now I am yearning to jump on the hype train and read The Testaments just to remain in Atwood’s incredible and twisted world.
#2 Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Purple Hibiscus tells a thoughtful and aggravating story of a family in Nigeria through the perceptive eyes of 15-year-old Kambili. Facing the menace that is her religious and abusive father and tasting the freedom of a loving family that she is constantly deprived of, Kambili battles with her silence and inability to socialise alongside her anxiety-inducing desire to experience a childhood full of a joy that seems to come so naturally to others.
The way Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie combines a coming-of-age story with a young woman’s experience of a toxic household is incredibly touching. Kambili’s controlling and intolerant Papa is painted in many different shades and Adichie expertly builds tension in the spaces between Kambili and her brother Jaja’s “rebellious” actions and their inevitable punishment. The fear you feel in Kambili’s shoes is palpable and makes the whole story so powerful and affecting.
Kambili and Jaja find a second family in Aunt Ifeoma and experience laughter, joy and love without bounds which makes a heart-breaking tale heart-warming in places. However, it is still an excruciating read as you see and understand why Kambili tries her best to please an unforgiving father and get the love and congratulations she craves but I just wanted to tell the children to run back to their loving aunt and escape their parents’ inevitable downward spiral.
Similarly to The Handmaid’s Tale, I love the way Purple Hibiscus is structured with the events of Palm Sunday given up front with little to no context before we slowly work our way through the back story and then the aftermath – it made it a far more interesting and engaging read.
Adichie covers a myriad of themes from patriarchal control to religious division; educational pressure to disparities between the rich and poor. She combines the personal and political covering some heavy topics but there’s a real feeling of hope which made me really enjoy getting through the difficult sections.
As this is Adichie’s debut novel from 2003, I am yet again late to the party but am happy that I can now go back and read all of her remaining novels knowing her writing style and beautiful descriptions will make for poignant and powerful stories.
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