THE LAND AT THE END OF THE WORLD

This semi-autobiographical novel about Portugal’s war in Angola was originally published in 1979.

That war, Portugal’s doomed attempt to hang on to its African colony, lasted from 1961 to 1974. It was conducted ineptly by the Fascist regime of dictator António de Oliveira Salazar. The unnamed narrator, a doctor, was conscripted in 1971. He presents us with three selves. The first is the thumbnail sketch of a child and young man who is the product of right-wing youth movements and Catholic ritual. A loner, he is the prisoner of melancholy. That word permeates the novel. The second self is the 20-something doctor unwillingly at war, living in a desolate, hellish series of barracks in Eastern Angola. The PIDE (secret police) agents are fearsome. Antunes challenges himself (and the reader) by describing the scene in dense paragraphs of run-on sentences. What should be incantatory too often becomes monotonous. Moments of relief are few: on leave in Lisbon with his wife and daughter, back in the bush in the arms of Sofia, his African washerwoman; here, the white oppressor granted absolution by his magnanimous black victim is a disappointing stereotype. The narrator becomes radicalized, cursing the Fascists who have sent him on this fool’s errand; yet for him the greatest horror is lacking the courage to protest, even as a PIDE agent inflicts torture, even after learning that they have abducted Sofia. We see the result in the narrator’s third self: the doctor in Portugal several years later, an empty shell. He is talking to a female companion, a late-night bar pick-up. (These moments alternate with the Angola scenes.) He invites her home but is unable to satisfy her; no surprise there. It’s also no surprise that he’s separated from his wife and alienated from his daughters; the author’s grim determinism has foreclosed different outcomes.   More effective as an indictment of colonial war than a psychological study. 

 

Pub Date: May 23, 2011

ISBN: 978-0-393-07776-6

Page Count: 256

Publisher: Norton

Review Posted Online: April 3, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2011

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Tinny perhaps, but still a minutely rendered and impressively steady feminist vision of apocalypse.

THE HANDMAID'S TALE

The time is the not-so-distant future, when the US's spiraling social freedoms have finally called down a reaction, an Iranian-style repressive "monotheocracy" calling itself the Republic of Gilead—a Bible-thumping, racist, capital-punishing, and misogynistic rule that would do away with pleasure altogether were it not for one thing: that the Gileadan women, pure and true (as opposed to all the nonbelieving women, those who've ever been adulterous or married more than once), are found rarely fertile.

Thus are drafted a whole class of "handmaids," whose function is to bear the children of the elite, to be fecund or else (else being certain death, sent out to be toxic-waste removers on outlying islands). The narrative frame for Atwood's dystopian vision is the hopeless private testimony of one of these surrogate mothers, Offred ("of" plus the name of her male protector). Lying cradled by the body of the barren wife, being meanwhile serviced by the husband, Offred's "ceremony" must be successful—if she does not want to join the ranks of the other disappeared (which include her mother, her husband—dead—and small daughter, all taken away during the years of revolt). One Of her only human conduits is a gradually developing affair with her master's chauffeur—something that's balanced more than offset, though, by the master's hypocritically un-Puritan use of her as a kind of B-girl at private parties held by the ruling men in a spirit of nostalgia and lust. This latter relationship, edging into real need (the master's), is very effectively done; it highlights the handmaid's (read Everywoman's) eternal exploitation, profane or sacred ("We are two-legged wombs, that's all: sacred vessels, ambulatory chalices"). Atwood, to her credit, creates a chillingly specific, imaginable night-mare. The book is short on characterization—this is Atwood, never a warm writer, at her steeliest—and long on cynicism—it's got none of the human credibility of a work such as Walker Percy's Love In The Ruins. But the scariness is visceral, a world that's like a dangerous and even fatal grid, an electrified fence.

Tinny perhaps, but still a minutely rendered and impressively steady feminist vision of apocalypse.

Pub Date: Feb. 17, 1985

ISBN: 038549081X

Page Count: -

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin

Review Posted Online: Sept. 16, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 1985

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THE SECRET HISTORY

The Brat Pack meets The Bacchae in this precious, way-too-long, and utterly unsuspenseful town-and-gown murder tale. A bunch of ever-so-mandarin college kids in a small Vermont school are the eager epigones of an aloof classics professor, and in their exclusivity and snobbishness and eagerness to please their teacher, they are moved to try to enact Dionysian frenzies in the woods. During the only one that actually comes off, a local farmer happens upon them—and they kill him. But the death isn't ruled a murder—and might never have been if one of the gang—a cadging sybarite named Bunny Corcoran—hadn't shown signs of cracking under the secret's weight. And so he too is dispatched. The narrator, a blank-slate Californian named Richard Pepen chronicles the coverup. But if you're thinking remorse-drama, conscience masque, or even semi-trashy who'll-break-first? page-turner, forget it: This is a straight gee-whiz, first-to-have-ever-noticed college novel—"Hampden College, as a body, was always strangely prone to hysteria. Whether from isolation, malice, or simple boredom, people there were far more credulous and excitable than educated people are generally thought to be, and this hermetic, overheated atmosphere made it a thriving black petri dish of melodrama and distortion." First-novelist Tartt goes muzzy when she has to describe human confrontations (the murder, or sex, or even the ping-ponging of fear), and is much more comfortable in transcribing aimless dorm-room paranoia or the TV shows that the malefactors anesthetize themselves with as fate ticks down. By telegraphing the murders, Tartt wants us to be continually horrified at these kids—while inviting us to semi-enjoy their manneristic fetishes and refined tastes. This ersatz-Fitzgerald mix of moralizing and mirror-looking (Jay McInerney shook and poured the shaker first) is very 80's—and in Tartt's strenuous version already seems dated, formulaic. Les Nerds du Mal—and about as deep (if not nearly as involving) as a TV movie.

Pub Date: Sept. 16, 1992

ISBN: 1400031702

Page Count: 592

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 1992

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