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I was very lucky to get a ticket to hear Margaret Atwood speak about her new novel MaddAddam at the Hatchards Bloomsbury Book Club in Bedford Square at the end of August (and of course to get my copy of the book signed). (Apologies for the fuzzy photo!)
I have been an Atwood devotee since I was a teenager but this is the first time I’ve heard her speak in person, and what a thrill it was. She is such a presence, so articulate and willing to engage and debate, and I took piles of notes which I don’t intend to repeat here you’ll be relieved to note.
- I was interested to hear that she hadn’t originally intended Oryx & Crake to be the first in a trilogy but when she finished it she realised that the abrupt ending would lead to questions and that she would have to revisit the world she had created.
- She talked about the distinction between speculative and science fiction. She said this wasn’t about one being better than the other but about accurate labelling; when she sees something described as science fiction she expects rockets and planets and feels cheated if they aren’t present. She distinguished between two pioneers – Jules Verne (close to reality, might happen, potentially true) and HG Wells (fantastic, not real).
- She reads the back pages of science journals to see what people are working on (and encourages us to do so too)
- One of humanity’s first technologies was telling stories, and the ability to understand stories begins in children at an early stage, within the first year.
- “We speculate what Spot the Dog is thinking, but he’s probably not thinking about who makes dogs”
All fascinating stuff, and the promise of more to come. I left the event even more of a fangirl than when I went in!
Earlier this year I enjoyed watching a series on BBC4 about Flemish painting written and presented by Andrew Graham-Dixon. One of the paintings featured was the Arnolfini portrait by Jan van Eyck, one of the most recognisable pictures in the world, and a firm favourite of mine. A few days later I happened to be in King’s Cross station and spotted Carola Hicks’ Girl in a Green Gown: the history and mystery of the Arnolfini portrait and just had to buy it.
I’m so glad that I did.
What I hadn’t realised is that, unusually for a painting this old, its provenance can be tracked from the date it was painted right up until it became part of the collection in the National Gallery in the 1840s. What makes this book so fascinating is that it alternates the stories of the various owners (including one of my favourite historical figures, Philip II of Spain) with various detailed aspects of the picture itself – the mirror, the clothes, the chandelier, the dog etc. – explaining both the symbolism and the technical skills involved.
There is heaps of information in this book but it’s presented in a light and engaging way which certainly held my interest and had me looking up further information elsewhere. there is also a fascinating chapter on how perceptions of the picture have changed over time and how it has ben adopted and adapted for satirical and advertising purposes among others.
Sadly, Carola Hicks died from complications relating to cancer before she had put the finishing touches to the book, but her notes and amendments were incorporated by her husband so that her work could be published. I’m so glad he was able to do so because this is just a delight and if you are at all interested in art you should seek this one out.
About time for another National Gallery visit I think!
So, MaddAddam is the final volume in the eponymous trilogy by Margaret Atwood which began with Oryx & Crake and The Year of the Flood which I have reviewed separately here and here respectively. At the end of the previous volume the various threads of narrative came together and we are now moving forward into the future.
After the man-made plague a small group of humans have survived and we watch them come together and try to form a community and find a way to live in a world where supplies are dwindling, there uncertainty about just how many other people are still alive, and where they have to adapt to sharing the world with the Crakers, a genetically designed species of people who were designed to replace humanity which should have been wiped out. In amongst all this there are two threats: a few extraordinarily unpleasant men who seem to enjoy nothing other than inflicting pain and misery and, more interestingly, the pigoons, genetically modified intelligent carnivorous pigs who become really key to the survival of our little group in quite unexpected ways.
Although the novel is primarily focussed on establishing a new society (albeit a very localised one) there continue to be flashbacks to the past told through the eyes of Zeb who has become the partner of my favourite character Toby, and in telling her his life story illuminates us further on the background to the creation of the plague and the founding of God’s Gardeners, a sect which turns out to have been more than it seemed.
I enjoyed MaddAddam, was pleased to find out more about characters I had come to feel strongly about, but I’m not sure that it really comes to a conclusion, unless the conclusion is that no matter how well you think you have designed something (in this case the Crakers) you cannot plan for everything and once things are out in the world they will develop as they must. And it is very amusing in places.
I’m glad I took the time to read the trilogy so close together as I feel that I might have got lost if I’d read them as they were published; I found them dense (in a good way), lots to think about and jeep track of. If you enjoy speculative fiction you should give these a try.
And I was thrilled to get my copy signed by the great lady herself; more of that in a future post.
The Year of the Flood is the second book in Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy. It takes us back to the events described in Oryx & Crake (my review of that is here) but where the first novel told the story of the events around the man-made plague which devastates the world from the inside through one character, Snowman, The Year of the Flood addresses the same events from the perspective of two women in the outside world.
Though it comes as no surprise that, as we work our way through the stories of Ren and Toby, we become aware of links and connections with Snowman’s tale, some more obvious than others.
Ren is an exotic dancer who finds herself trapped in quarantine in the club where she works. Toby has taken refuge in an abandoned health spa and watches and waits on the building’s roof garden. The book alternates between the stories of each woman, and within their individual tales between the present and the past. This helps us build up a picture of the society destroyed by the actions of Crake, and gives us some clues as to why he thought it all had to be wiped away. The segregation, casual violence and exploitation of technology is vividly described in the novel, and the voices of the two women are strong and affecting.
I became particularly fond of Toby as a character, especially her involvement with the sect known as God’s Gardeners and her habit of noting the sermons and saints days and rituals that they practised. And of course her tending of the bees. Inevitably she and Ren come together and the book ends at almost the same point as Oryx & Crake, bringing the two narrative strands together and setting us up for the final instalment.
I loved this book and read it very quickly; middle books often suffer (just like middle films) from being a bridge between the set-up and the denouement and being unresolved in themselves, but I didn’t feel that was the case here at all. Perhaps it was the female point of view, perhaps it was the greater understanding it provided of the world the story is set in, perhaps it was just that I loved Toby so much, but for me (and without pre-empting my review of the final novel) this was the strongest instalment in the trilogy and the one I can see myself going back to. Very enjoyable.