It has been a while since I have read a classic and, in the space of a week, I managed to read two, albeit both are fairly modern classics. Both these books have wormed their way into my head, with disturbing themes, intriguing characters and glimpses into the past.
The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
This is a book I have wanted to read for a long time; I have heard so much about it that it quickly rose in the ranks to become a get-hold-of-asap kind of book. Luckily, my new housemate owned a copy and so I devoured it in about two days.
The Handmaid’s Tale reveals a dystopian future where women are subjugated, forced into one of three roles: Wife, Handmaid or Martha. Each role has a uniform so they can be easily identified, and different levels of standing in society. This book is told from the point of view of Offred, a Handmaid who is part of Fred’s household (hence the name). She lives only to provide Fred with a child that his Wife is unable to bear and this book narrates her time in this household mixed with glimpses of her past and how America came to be as it is in the book.
I really enjoyed this book. It was fascinating and resonated in my mind long after I had finished it. Atwood slowly weaves out the story, allowing you, as the reader, to piece together Offred’s life. I particularly loved the dichotomy between Offred’s past, before the Republic of Gilead, a religious sect, came to power and reduced all women to nothing more than their husband’s property, and her present where she is defined by the habit she wears. The transition between the two eras was particularly terrifying, both in how quickly it came about and how the women were taught that their body was not their own, particularly shaming those who had had an abortion.
I would really recommend reading The Handmaid’s Tale. It is a fascinating and terrifying story of a world that seems all too real. If you have read this, than I would also recommend reading Only Ever Yours by Louise O’Neill, which is very similar in theme but takes on a slightly darker tone with a greater focus on the training to fill the role society has defined for them.
The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks
We’re taking a step into even darker territory now, with another book off of my housemate’s shelf. This is a book I had not heard of before, not until it was placed into my hands with a ‘I think you will like this one too’. I did.
The Wasp Factory was a difficult book to get into, I will admit. But it was also a difficult book to get out of as well. The content is dark and disturbing, with a main character who approaches severe violence with a such a calm attitude that you, as a reader, start to believe his rationalisation. The main character, Frank, lives on an island with his father, a man who keeps himself to himself; as a result, Frank is left to his own devices. Or rather, the devices of the Wasp Factory – a religion that Frank developed and follows to the letter, every day, which involves the murder of animals, and creation of sacrifice poles and the highly sacred skull that lies in an old bunker.
The voice of this book is powerful, more powerful than that in The Handmaid’s Tale and, while the prose is not complex, it really gets under your skin. It switches between the present, where Frank’s older brother had escaped from an asylum and is heading home, and the past, where Frank describes the events which made him who he is, including the murder of three family members by his own hand.
There is a massive twist at the end of the book, which I am still to wrap my head around, and decide whether or not it is one I actually like. If you are someone who flicks to the end of the book for any reason while reading, do not do it with this one. I did, and the last line of the book is a massive spoiler. If you do like this, I would suggest reading A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess. Both are psychological, violent and twisted. It is probably not a good idea to read either if you are feint of heart or get disturbed easily by remorseless, rationalised violence.