reading, Reviews

Book Review: The Girl on the Train

The_Girl_On_The_TrainI recently read this after getting a little bogged down with a more clunky read I do hope to finish but needed a breezy thrill to grease the cogs. I picked up The Girl on the Train recently; I’d seen it a lot out and about and I almost wondered in the back of my mind if it was too commercial a thriller to enjoy. But I let my preconceptions slide and bought the book.

The Girl on the Train, while not the perfect thriller, certainly held my attention enough for it to be enjoyed like a thriller. I credit this to several aspects: crisp prose with a strong storytelling style and at the root of it an engaging plot thread.

The prose, as I said, is crisp and well-constructed. The chapters shift point-of-view from one of the three women protagonists around whom the story is hung. It reads a lot like diary entries; each chapter interspersed with either morning or evening sections. As a storytelling mechanic this was different enough and a novel enough approach to propel me through

This I felt complimented the story; normal prose detailing the domestic minutiae of the protagonists day-to-day would’ve been unengaging; instead the prose was filleted right down to what mattered to the story. That’s not to say the prose was unengaging; it was, but neither was it meandering. It’s definitely the style of writing I appreciate more, and it’s a trait in thriller writing I expressly appreciate too; less so the purple, overwritten prose so emblematic to other genres.

The plot behind The Girl on the Train dug its claws in – I wanted to see the mystery solved, and it did, as thrillers do, neatly wrap itself up in threads in the first two thirds of the book for these threads to unwind in the final third. I was gripped and immersed enough to want to know what was happening. The payoff at the end, with the final confrontation, was satisfying and smacked me right in the face a little – an of course! moment neatly subverted until the climax.

But what struck me as a criticism of the book was the characters – three women, Rachel, Anna and Megan – that it revolves around are steeped in suburban melodrama. Rachel, the primary protagonist, is an unreliable narrator in the sense that she’s always drunk but that’s only a surface illusion. The book plays on the reader’s expectations about a narrator who is quickly characterised as an alcoholic and twists it around. That distrust of Rachel as an unreliable narrator (which becomes a key point in the climax) is another reason to stick at it; the story may seem mundane, but an undertone of suspicion and not-quite-right-ness kept up the intrigue. It helps because the crisp prose and initially-melodramatic characters, who can come across as pastiches of suburban living could so easily grate the book to a halt.

It is this suburban melodrama that ultimately drives the story to its ugly twist. The characters, all bored and depressed wives at their core, were melodramatic and the source of their squabble was succinctly suburban. These characters ultimately are all defined by their husbands or their children. I do feel we could’ve seen more into the characters beside those attributes, to get a deeper understanding of them as I feel the characters had so much more to give beside the narrow viewpoint of their husbands (and feeling towards) and children but alas that was what the plot demanded we focus on. These characters are petty, petulant and, strangely enough, that seems not all-to-farfetched in the nebulous world of boring suburbia.

This seemed two-dimensional but on reflection this two-dimensionality fitted the remit of the book. The Girl on the Train tells the story of what happens behind closed doors in sleepy suburbia. Ultimately the image of suburbia is cast aside and the unsettling truth behind it is revealed. Ultimately though suburbia is not a subject area I am particularly interested in exploring but the book held my interest to the very end.

I wavered a little on the rating but ultimately had to settle down to a 3. It’s not a bad book at all things considered and I quite liked it for what it was! There’s enough here to hold my interest and keep me intrigued through a journey through the underbelly of “perfect” suburbia.

reading, Reviews

Book Review: The Handmaid’s Tale

The_Handmaids_TaleAs some may know, I enjoy and write post-apocalyptic fiction and one of the most common titles that I get cited and asked “have you read?” is The Handmaid’s Tale and I can now say that I have. It was a thoughtful book that definitely got me thinking – a plus! I’m still unsure quite how I feel about it however.

What I found convincing in The Handmaid’s Tale was the sense that the Republic of Gilead, in which the story takes place, was a plausible and frightening theological autocracy, and the mood of the book certainly conveyed that. This society did seem regressive, scary and foreboding which is impressively executed; the most recent work to which I can draw an analog being The Children of Men, which I read first but was published after The Handmaid’s Tale.

I feel The Handmaid’s Tale and The Children of Men are very similar books – certainly on reading the former after the latter, it’s clear that PD James was influenced quite heavily by Atwood’s novel. They both have foreboding atmospheres portrayed with crisp prose that instils the sense of bleakness and resignation that the characters seem to exude until the latter parts of each.

A friend from university, knowing me, was surprised to see me reading “such progressive literature”. Is The Handmaid’s Tale a “progressive” book? I wouldn’t necessarily readily agree – I feel The Handmaid’s Tale does well in the sense that the book extrapolates to an extreme the idea of a religious uprising taking control of what was America, and the eroding of what we contemporarily see as human rights as blasphemy and indecency. But does that mean The Handmaid’s Tale is “feminist”? I wouldn’t be too sure; certainly the author, contemporarily, isn’t quite conforming to the more extreme puritanical feminist type today so to draw too much from The Handmaid’s Tale is tempting but not something I will indulge in.

Is The Handmaid’s Tale really a “feminist book”? I’d struggle to agree – I feel the plot rather extrapolates to an extreme the persecution of women under various contemporary extreme religious viewpoints, so (if anything) the book serves as a cautionary tale for the true believers. But does Offred’s rebellion against this system make therefore make The Handmaid’s Tale “feminist”? Again… no, as the system Atwood had created in the Republic of Gilead is and always was doomed to failure; yes it made characters suffer, especially those not compliant to an extreme and barbaric interpretation of religious doctrine, but is it feminist? No; I’d argue it’s more a polemic about the dangers of religious bigotry and dogma (the society of Gilead is flawed by constraining human emotion and the story highlights these inherent flaws) but I imagine there’s some that would argue that it’s more focussing on traditional patriarchal hierarchies. I did not read it that way or glean that perspective in particular, but people will read into it whatever they do (or do not) want to.

I’d rather focus on what, as a book, not a statement of intent or whatever, The Handmaid’s Tale does right and wrong. The setting and mood of the piece is excellent, and there’s a key admission that the theocratic regime cannot entirely contain the human nature for desire under the pretext of religion – so is this book less “pro-feminist” and more “anti-religion”? I would say so from my reading. There’s some chilling instances of characters being replaced and it helps to underpin the nature of the society that Atwood is creating in Gilead; the reasons for it coming about are left ambiguous which is a bit of a missed opportunity but the story is very contained so swathes of exposition into the backstory would be conspicuous.

That’s not to say The Handmaid’s Tale is perfect: indeed, I feel it’s a book I would certainly gain more from a second reading of; there’s a fair bit I only seemed to glean from research outside of the novel itself. The prose, while mostly crisp and taut, is at times feeling as it if is disconnected from telling the story to make a wider point outside of the story – there’s points Atwood wants to make using The Handmaid’s Tale and at some instances I feel she stops the story to make them. Whether the story of Offred quite fills the space Atwood is creating with this world isn’t clear – certainly the prose makes the story feel claustrophobic and tense, but at the same time is there much story there at all?

Atwood also managed to irritate me with her prose: some dialogue has no punctuation, some is regular. There seemed to be no “pattern” to this usage/non-usage which proved an irritation below the surface and impacted the comprehension of whatever point the author wanted to make. And the ending feels somewhat ambiguous and unclear which irked me, just as I felt the plot had begun to motor along nicely.

Overall though… The Handmaid’s Tale is an interesting concept inside an imperfect book, but it’s one I have kept a few nagging thoughts of. That’s neither to say it’s a book I couldn’t stop thinking about once I finished it (which is good) or a book that was immediately forgettable; it’s in a strange limbo that I feel, only a re-read will propel either way. But I strangely, for my reservations, look forward to it.