The Testaments by Margaret Atwood

I wasn’t sure what to expect reading The Testaments, especially after its prequel, The Handmaid’s Tale had such a profound impact on my life – as it did with so many others too (I couldn’t bring myself to watch the TV series, despite all the amazing reviews and awards, because I didn’t want the impression the book left to be diluted or, dare I say, translated in any way). It’s not incorrect to say that because of studying that book at university (and Shirley Hazzard’s The Transit of Venus), I underwent a career change becoming an academic for over 25 years. Over some of that time, I introduced others to the wonder, power and terrible vision of Offred and Gilead’s story, reliving and appreciating its formidable narrative every single time. So, what would the sequel a book, as Atwood herself said, 35 years in the making offer? Would it destroy the foundations laid so long ago or build upon them in a way that is as astonishing and frightening as the first book?

The Testaments begins fifteen years after Offred disappeared from Gilead and readers heard her harrowing tale (and which we’d just borne witness to), interpreted through the lens of history and the dry rhetoric of an academic conference – a brilliant metaphor on its own. Told from three different points of view – that of one of the most influential and dreadful of the Aunts, a young Gileadian girl destined to become a Wife, and then from an outsider’s perspective – Gilead, the state that oppresses and subjugates in the name of God and specific interpretations of the Bible – is no less chilling and the themes and incidents no less prescient than they were in The Handmaid’s Tale. Once more, the reader is given insight into the socio-cultural structures that make Gilead; how the regime demands complete and utter surrender and also how it inculcates people into being complicit in upholding its dominant paradigms, even when they oppress them.

Just as we were in The Handmaid’s Tale, we’re given snapshots into the coup that overturned a mighty Republic, and how those in power maintained it. Through particular individuals and roles, we’re also given entrée to the domestic arrangements – whereas it was once through the eyes of a Handmaiden, this time it is mainly through the Wives, Marthas, Commanders, and daughters of the privileged.

How Gilead is viewed by the rest of the world, how it is and isn’t tolerated and the resistance movements that try and aid those wishing to escape its clutches, is also shown, as are how these organisations are represented within Gilead. Propaganda is not exclusive to one country or ideology, even if the reader is clearly meant to identify with the freer world.

Whereas the three different narrative strands first appear distinct, as this tale unfolds, they’re slowly woven together until the title of the book becomes both literal and another powerful trope.

Questions posed or left unanswered in The Handmaid’s Tale are mostly resolved (which was terrific), and what I really liked is that once more, historians are not let off the hook, even if the work they do isn’t disrespected but revealed to be, by nature, limited as well as complex and nuanced (even if some in that field are not).

This was an at once extraordinary and terrifying read in that so much of what unfolds holds up a dark mirror to contemporary politics, gender and sexual identity, social roles and movements. But it’s also fabulously entertaining, page-turning and exciting as well – Atwood is a master storyteller who knows how to keep her readers riveted. I wish I could say that The Testaments is only a marvellous and authoritative work of fiction, but I fear it is something much more and even darker – it’s also a warning. One has only to look at the state of world politics now and the rise of the extreme religious right to see parallels. Atwood has put us on notice and woe betide if we don’t heed what she says…

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The Spice Merchant’s Wife by Charlotte Betts

Don’t be fooled by the title. While The Spice Merchant’s Wife by Charlotte Betts is indeed about a wife, and she happens to be married to a merchant, spices play a minor role in the novel. Instead, the story of Katherine Finche, a woman who marries a wealthy merchant for both convenience and to escape the cruelty of her Aunt Mercy, is a tale of regret, loss, determination, deception, exploitation, lust and love.

Set during Restoration London, spices may be absent in the sense I know I was anticipating, but that doesn’t mean the novel lacks spice – on the contrary, in the figure of Kate, it abounds.

18655964Opening on the eve of the Great Fire of London in 1666, anyone who knows their history understands the excitement felt by the Finche family as a long-awaited cargo and investment comes into port and is unloaded into the warehouses, will be short-lived. As their lives and livelihood go up in smoke, we follow the misfortune that besets Kate and her rather dullard, moody and frankly unpleasant husband, Robert and his parents.

What unfolds as Kate and Robert struggle to reclaim some of what they lost – most of all, their dignity, as their former social standing has also turned to ash, is a wonderful and at times, tragic account of not only what happened to the hundred thousand or so people and businesses displaced by the devastation, but the rebuilding of London after the fire and the opportunities for fortunes to be made and lost and usually at others’ expense.

Just as Kate and Robert look set to endure a lifetime of repaying debt and thus misery, a prosperous man enters their life, promising them riches, position and his patronage. Falling under his spell, Robert grasps the opportunity, but Kate is not so enchanted and regards their new benefactor with grave suspicion. When some of the projects he’s responsible for begin to deteriorate and collapse, and those who would accuse him of shoddy practices conveniently turn up dead or disappear, Kate can no longer look away.

Along with the wicked people come the good. This is also the story about a blind and brilliant perfumier, Gabriel Harte, and the kindness and generosity of his family as well as an exploration of his talents. Kate, and thus the reader, comes to “see” London and people through Gabriel’s other senses – above all, his sense of smell.

When fate brings Kate into the Harte’s sphere, she finds herself seeing things in a new and unexpected way. But when the man who once promised to help her husband now sets his sights upon destroying her, Kate has no choice but to either prove her suspicions and seek justive for those this man has ruined and killed or run for her life…

At first, I wasn’t certain I was going to enjoy this book. Yes, the title was misleading and, while I loathed Robert to the point I could barely read a scene he was in, there were times I didn’t like Kate much. Her responses to situations had too modern a tone or didn’t fit the character being created for the reader. I also found the villain almost vaudevillian. Then, I read in the Author’s Note that he was actually based on a real person! Albeit, I am sure, coloured more brightly for narrative purposes. But, as the story continued, I grew to understand Kate and like her and the moral ambiguity some of her choices create. I also began to realise that this was a novel about wives – the choices they make, what they endured and enjoyed; how contingent they were on men for everything, including their happiness.

Like the book, Kate is not perfect, but she still makes a great foil for exploring post-fire London and two very different occupations: building and perfume. The descriptions of the scents are really lovely.

Betts recreates the period effortlessly and certainly, her descriptions of the fire and the losses of the people are well-portrayed, especially through the lens of the once-arrogant Finches.

Overall, I really enjoyed this and recommend it for lovers of history, romance, and suspense.

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