Book Review: Bodily Harm by Margaret Atwood


Bodily HarmBodily Harm by Margaret Atwood

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I spent several weeks in France during the summer of 2003. I arrived at the start of a massive European heat wave that would continue weeks after I left in August, killing nearly 15,000 in France alone.

One Friday afternoon in late July I trained from Gaillac to Carcassonne, in the heart of the Languedoc. I’d reserved an inexpensive hotel recommended by my Lonely Planet Guide.

The hotel was a disaster. Dim, dreary, sweltering, grimy. I had to pay cash for my night’s stay before seeing the room. Despairing, homesick, I dumped my small pack on the bed and went for a walk, clinging to the shadows, hating everything about dim, dreary, sweltering, grimy Carcassonne.

Along the way, I passed a three-star hotel near Pont Vieux – the bridge that spans the Aude River and leads to the medieval fortress, which overlooks Carcassonne. I had a brief chat with myself as I walked across the bridge: “Julie, don’t be an idiot. You are an adult. You have a good job. You can give yourself permission to stay in a decent place!”

I turned around and walked back to the fleabag hotel, grabbed my backpack and left. Bugger the money I’d already paid. It wasn’t worth the torture. I checked in at the Hotel Les Trois Couronnes and had myself a civilized, air-conditioned, insect-free night in a sparkling room with a view of the Citadel.

Had I been a character in a Margaret Atwood novel, not only would I have resigned myself to staying at the dive, I would have found cockroaches lurking in the bathroom sink, the shower wouldn’t have worked, I’d have shared the mattress with bedbugs and been kept up all night by the exuberant lovemaking of my next door neighbors and the drunken fighting in the streets outside.

Did I mention I would have just lost a breast to cancer? And recently split from my self-absorbed cheat of a boyfriend? And spinning my wheels in a career I no longer cared about? Oh, and my apartment would have been recently broken into, a lariat of thin rope left curled on my bed.

Welcome to the world of Rennie Wilford, small-town Canadian making an unsatisfying living as a free-lance writer in Toronto. Rennie once had hopes of a career in journalism, exposing political outrages and human rights’ violations. She now writes lifestyle pieces, at times inventing fashion trends to create an assignment that will pay the rent.

Rennie’s life is a series of betrayals. Her editors, her boyfriend, her body – all out to use and abuse her. When menaced by a stranger who leaves his murder weapon as a calling card, Rennie decides it’s time to leave town for a while. She accepts an assignment – a fluff travel piece – in a flyspeck island in the Caribbean, St. Antoine. Which is experiencing a bloody revolution.

If there’s anything else that can go wrong in Rennie’s life, Atwood is certain to ferret it out and make it happen.

As a reader, you are forced to suspend empathy with Rennie. Atwood treats her cruelly, putting her in impossible situations or making her behave in ridiculous ways. It is hard not to cringe, not to wave your hands and shout “Don’t do it!” You must read passively, watching this depressed and depressing young woman crash and burn.

Crikey! I’m not painting a very pretty picture, am I? Why even read this? Because, although this story is painful, the writing is incredible. Because Atwood smashes writing conventions left and right, tossing in flashbacks that bring present-day action to a shuddering halt, by crafting a protagonist you want to shake silly, by tossing in sub-plots that illustrate the emotional crap we all haul around. Because few writers can wrap a story in – can warp a story with – satire and tragedy, and still speak so well to the truth of the human condition as Margaret Atwood.

We’re each on our own insignificant island in the middle of nowhere, fighting our bloody revolutions, aren’t we?

Bodily Harm was published in 1981. It could have been written yesterday. Rennie, version 2012, would have her laptop stolen, Wifi service on St. Antoine would be non-existent. There would still be a revolution, still be people desperate or amoral enough to use a vulnerable, hapless woman. Rennie would be faced with the same lousy circumstances and make the same lousy decisions.

Still, I would have stayed at the better hotel

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Book Review: Island Beneath The Sea by Isabel Allende

Island Beneath the SeaIsland Beneath the Sea by Isabel Allende

My rating: 3 1/2 of 5 stars

Isabel Allende is a passionate, confident storyteller. To read her sweeping historical fiction is to surrender to high drama and romance.

I first knew Allende as a writer of magical realism with works like Eva Luna and Of Love and Shadows, in which she intertwines contemporary political drama with strokes of the surreal and mystical. But her debut novel, The House of the Spirits, published in 1982 and the epics which followed, such as Daughter of Fortune, Portrait in Sepia, and Zorro reveal a writer rooted deeply in the past and enamored of rich, complex, colorful narratives.

In Island Beneath The Sea, Allende wraps her considerable skill around the sugar plantations of Saint Domingue, an island in the Caribbean. She opens the story in 1770 with the arrival of Toulouse Valmorain, a young minor noble who is charged with resurrecting the plantation his dying father has left to rot. Paralleling the third-person narrative of Valmorain’s misadventures, the death of Saint-Domingue and the birth of the first black republic, Haiti, is the first-person stream of Zarité, a slave. We witness the horrors of slavery from a position removed, seeing all angles as plantation owners fight to hold onto their wealth and slaves fall by the thousands. We are also invited into the heart of woman who fights for her soul despite the inhumanity that touches every aspect of her life.

The action is brutal and graphic; Allende spares no detail in describing the incomprehensible cruelty suffered by slaves. We read scene after scene of torture, from a sea voyage in chains from Africa to the Caribbean – survived by those who escape being fed to sharks or wasting away from starvation or disease – to the living hell of sugarcane fields where the slaves are worked literally to death.

It would seem that the author intended to give the greatest weight to the story of Zarité. Even the book’s synopsis asserts that this story is about “a mulatta woman determined to take control of her own destiny.” But the initial focus of Island Beneath The Sea is the political and sociological conditions of Saint-Domingue which lead to a slave revolution and the fight for an independent black nation. Zarité’s voice seems like a whisper, an impression reinforced by the italics used for the chapters of her narrative. Allende excels at creating strong female characters and there are many in this story: the gorgeous concubine Violette, the shrieking harridan Hortense, the formidable healer Tante Rose. But Zarité’s story is cast in the shadow of Haiti’s violent birth and the immorality of the colonials.

Then the story moves from the newly formed nation of Hait to Louisiana and the center of French culture in the New World, New Orleans. It is here that the story shifts from historical epic to Gothic drama. The families transplanted from the Caribbean struggle to find new places in a society where the rules change with its citizens’ fortunes. This shift is frustrating. We leave behind themes of freedom and political determination and are dropped instead into several different romantic subplots. Even as I was entertained, I felt intellectually cheated by the discarding of so vital a story.

It is impossible not to be swept away by Allende’s vivid detail and breathtaking scope of history; in fact, so much scene-setting and character description can steam-roll the reader. The first half is entrancing, the second half is entertaining. Although Allende’s story isn’t always convincing, her passion is.

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