Book Review - The School for Good Mothers by Jessamine Chan

Book Review | The School for Good Mothers by Jessamine Chan

Frida Liu had a very bad day. But in this dystopian universe, only slightly removed from our own, having a very bad day can be the end of the life you love. She leaves her crying daughter Harriet at home – just briefly, just to get a coffee – and then to run to the office, and then… by the time she returns home, the neighbours have called the police. Before she has time to catch her breath, she’s placed under state surveillance.

Her ex-husband and his new wife (the one he cheated on her with while pregnant and abandoned her for shortly after Harriet was born) assume custody of Harriet while Frida awaits her fate. In addition to the surveillance, she must attend supervised play sessions with Harriet. But it’s no good – she’s determined an unfit mother. The adjudicators who watched the footage felt that her crying, meant to show repentance, seemed to be in self-pity. And so she has the option to go to the school for good mothers, a one-year program in which they will transform her ‘from the inside out.’

‘Frida begins to weep. She needs to tell the judge about the house of her mind in the house of her body. Those houses are cleaner now and less afraid. She would never leave Harriet like that, not again.’

Soon after the mothers arrive at the residential program more like a prison, they are presented with AI dolls, created to resemble their own flesh-and-blood children. These proxy children with ‘the new-car smell, the faint click…, the chips in her eyes,…her fingernails that never grow.’ They will act as spies, ‘collecting data.’

‘They’ll gauge the mothers’ love. The mothers’ heart rates will be monitored to judge anger. Their blinking patterns and expressions will be monitored to detect stress, fear, ingratitude, deception, boredom, ambivalence, and a host of other feelings.’

There’s a growing undercurrent of despair throughout the novel, as the women are systematically stripped of their identities and institutionalised. What can only be described as psychological torture is metered out to these mothers – their one privilege of being allowed a 10-minute phone call on Sundays with their children is retracted for the most minor of infractions. Not all of their group can – or will – survive it.

Frida’s experience as a woman of colour and the daughter of immigrants factors heavily into her feelings of guilt and grief at the suffering her parents are enduring during her sentence. Her ethnicity also factors into the way she is assessed at the home; judged to be too passive, too cold, too detached, reflecting implicit racist stereotypes that work to her disadvantage as she desperately tries to prove herself a fit mother.

This novel takes a little while to get going, but I read the latter half almost in one sitting. It simmers with a quiet rage; a world somewhere between our current one and not so many steps from Margaret Atwood’s Gilead. Particularly with current US events and the Texas legislation to make abortion almost completely illegal, patriarchal claws continue to sink into our lives to deprive us of basic choices. It’s important to keep fighting the good fight – otherwise these fictionalised visions of a dystopian US might become closer to our reality.

The School for Good Mothers will be published in January 2022. Add it to your Goodreads TBR!

Book Review | The Testaments by Margaret Atwood

Here we have three stories of Gilead: one from a pillar of the regime, one from a commander’s daughter who has grown up in that society, and one a voice from the outside who comes in. Atwood returns to the world she created in 1985, a world which is as relevant as ever (see my review of The Handmaid’s Tale) and she is coming back to fill in the gaps; fleshing out and expanding upon the dystopian universe that has gripped so many millions of readers.

It’s an immersive narrative, far more plot-driven than I expected and it plays out like a thriller. We know, thanks to The Handmaid’s Tale, that Gilead does eventually fall. Now we have an insight into how and why: the rotting from the inside out and the exposé of horror brought to light from someone once so integral in upholding the system.

“I’d believed all that claptrap about life, liberty, democracy, and the rights of the individual I’d soaked up at law school. These were eternal verities and we would always defend them. I’d depended on that as if on a magic charm.”

These women recount their own lived experiences – in a society where women are forbidden from learning to read and write (even certain pastimes, like the embroidery of symbols, end up being banned – they are deemed ‘dangerously close to writing’) – this is a voice for the voiceless. Aunt Lydia’s accounts were my favourite by far: a three-dimensional look at a revered and feared female leader, whose monstrous indifference and calculated power plays make for hugely compelling reading. At the same time, we have two young girls, who come to learn overwhelming truths about their identities and who will be sent on a mission that could see them lose everything.

“I walked behind her over the uneven paving: it felt spongy, as if my foot could go through it at any moment. The world was no longer solid and dependable, it was porous and deceptive. Anything could disappear. At the same time, everything I looked at was very clear. It was like one of those surrealist paintings we’d studied in school the year before. Melted clocks in the desert, solid but unreal.’

It wasn’t wholly satisfying: the novel seems almost self-satisfied in its denouement, but things are still left unsaid. There is a lot that we still don’t know about the creation, geography and population of this world, and I felt there were missed opportunities for tying in our current global preoccupations such as the climate emergency and toxicities in our environment, and how this might have contributed to the decline in fertility. It was a long novel, and I felt while some of the right questions were answered, some pressing ones were not.

Lacking somewhat the gravitas of its literary predecessor, and veering more into commercial territory with its tone and pacing, some readers will cry in dismay at its position on the Booker shortlist and will feel that Atwood should have left well enough alone. I disagree: a greater degree of accessibility when it comes to hallowed authors is not a bad thing, and I found the novel gripping, intelligently written and a worthwhile read for anyone wishing to revisit the horrifying universe Atwood has crafted so well.

Book Review | The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

Gilead: a frightening, theocratic nation-state, a place where the deepest, darkest desires of Christian fundamentalism have come to life. Driven by a literal interpretation of old-testament ideologies, modern-day America has been transformed into a place where obedience is everything; deviation means death. In a world where environmental destruction has caused mass infertility, those who are still able to carry children are known as ‘handmaids’, servants for the upper-classes who are ritualistically raped by their ‘Commanders’ in the hope of conceiving a child and thus continuing their bloodline.

It wasn’t always like this. Offred (denoted only by her status as property of the Commander) remembers a time when she could smoke cigarettes and kiss her husband and play with her daughter and make crude jokes with her flatmate. Those memories are slipping further away, part of a past that is so far removed from the present to make you wonder whether it ever even existed.

‘I’m sad now, the way we’re taking is infinitely sad: faded music, faded paper flowers, worn satin, an echo of an echo. All gone away, no longer possible.’

To be a handmaid is to be forced to relinquish control over every aspect of your life: from what you eat to how you dress. Books have been banned, reading is a subversive act that can earn you a place on ‘the Wall’, a horrifying place of public execution, where bodies are left for days afterwards, for the public to bear witness to the consequences of insubordination.

‘Ordinary, said Aunt Lydia, is what you are used to. This may not seem ordinary to you now, but after a time it will. It will become ordinary.’

This is a book that I had been planning to read for years, but I also approached it somewhat with trepidation. As a seminal 20th century feminist text, what if I didn’t like it? What if it had dated? What if it was overwrought or overwritten?

These fears were unfounded. Decades after its publication, the text remains rightly canonical. Atwood writes with precision and clarity: words are economical and used wisely, the horror of a scene deftly conveyed with the spreading bloodstain over a hanged and hooded figure where a mouth should be. Not only is the writing masterful, but the cautionary tale remains relevant – frighteningly so. It’s no exaggeration to say that it feels prescient, that not only do women all over the world live in societies with little regard for their human rights, but also that hard-won freedoms of bodily autonomy for women in developed nations are only ever one despot away from being revoked.  You only have to look at who is in power in present-day America and the resolve of their closest advisors to bring down liberal democracy. More than thirty years on, The Handmaid’s Tale is as relevant and important as ever.

‘Perspective is necessary. Otherwise there are only two dimensions. Otherwise you live with your face squashed against a wall, everything a huge foreground, of details, close-ups, hairs, the weave of the bedsheet, the molecules of the face. Your own skin like a map, a diagram of futility, crisscrossed with tiny roads that lead nowhere. Otherwise you live in the moment which is not where I want to be.’