Monday, 24 June 2002

A handmaid’s tale & The vintner’s luck

Listening to:

Hildegard of Bingen, O ignis spiritus, from the CD, A feather on the breath of God. Easily the oldest music in my collection, being from the 12th century.

Just read:

Margaret Atwood, A handmaid’s tale.

This is an impressive piece of dystopian fiction in the tradition of 1984. It’s more grounded than Orwell’s novel because it's more explicit about its setting. In passing, it fills us in on how the modern USA (or a reasonably familiar facsimile thereof) turned into a fundamentalist Christian theocracy. I didn’t think that Atwood's alternative history was particularly believable, but at least there were details to mull over.

The story is that of a young woman who has become a handmaid, a state-sanctioned concubine given to a high-ranking government official because the official’s wife is infertile. (The state refuses to acknowledge the possibility that men might be infertile.) Environmental pollution means that very few healthy children are born (shades of John Wyndham's The Chrysalids), so women are allowed no official role other than mother. They are not even allowed to read or write.

The story zips along, shows us various aspects of the imagined future, and ends with a very cute epilogue. It also includes an amusing refashioning of Freud in an off-hand one-liner: women are re-educated not to want to read or write by being told “Pen is envy”.

Elizabeth Knox, The vintner’s luck.

This novel is a curious and interesting story about a French wine-maker of the first half of the 19th century. When 18 he meets an angel in the family vineyard in the middle of the night. After conversing, the angel says that he will continue returning every year on the same day.

The novel mixes its two tones, the sublime and the mundane well. The former features dreamy conversations with angels on matters like the nature of Heaven and Hell, and arresting images such as growing a rose garden in Hell, Hell getting a copy of everything ever copied, and the angel smelling of snow. The mundane is a conventional family saga, but with reasonably interesting characters. I think the cosmogony isn't thought out carefully enough, and would have preferred more of it in place of the saga. The relationship between the vintner and the angel is interesting enough in its own right without needing to give us much more conventional stories of adulteries and various misunderstandings.

To read next:

Hugh Sebag-Montefiore, Enigma: the battle for the code.