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From handmaids to handpuppets

From handmaids to handpuppets

For decades, the double Booker Prize winner Margaret Atwood has been creating alternative realities in her novels. Now that we find ourselves living in one who better to turn to for words of wisdom? The current world, under Covid-19 lockdown, might, she says, be “an unpleasant, frightening, disagreeable place you don’t want to be”, but it is not an authoritarian construct. Dystopia is the word habitually attached to Atwood’s work and she defines it as “an arranged unpleasant society that you don’t want to be living in”. Our current circumstances, however, are not intentional: “So people may be making arrangements that aren’t too pleasant, but it’s not a deliberate totalitarianism. It’s not a deliberate arrangement”. What it is is “an emergency crisis”, quite a different matter.

To pass her isolation time, Atwood and her sister Ruth recently designed and staged a lockdown puppet show of Edgar Allan Poe’s The Masque of the Red Death for the BBC’s Front Row Late. The sisters made the puppets from items around the house – bits of cloth and ribbon, hand sanitiser bottles and candles, with faces drawn on post-it notes. The story, of course, centres on a prince hiding in his abbey in an attempt to avoid the plague. The Atwoods’ version may not be full-blown gothic but it is nevertheless deeply odd. The story-telling urge in that family certainly runs deep.

Another Booker Prize winner, Arundhati Roy, has a new book due out later in the year. One of the essays in Freedom, Fascism, Fiction is entitled “The pandemic is a portal”. For Roy-ites the wait until publication has been shortened slightly by the author reading from the piece. It is clear that the lockdown has not dampened Roy’s social activism but rather ramped it up. Whatever else it is, she says, “Coronavirus has made the might kneel.”

Somewhat appropriately for these pared back, spartan times, Abdelouahab Aissaoui’s The Spartan Court has just been named winner of the International Prize for Arabic Fiction, supported by the Booker Prize Foundation. The Algerian novelist, the first from the country to win the prize, takes away $50,000 for his trouble and also a guarantee that the book will be translated into English. The story follows five characters in Algiers from 1815 to 1833 caught up in events as the French and Ottomans grapple for power in North Africa. Aissaoui, however, is not your standard novelist, enchanted since childhood with the power of words and the lure of tales. He is first and foremost a practical man: his degree subject was not literature but electromechanical engineering and his day job is as a maintenance engineer. Whether he will now return to the world of circuit boards and wiring is open to doubt: the prize win may have flicked a switch in his career.

Speaking ahead of the publication of her latest novel, The Redhead by the Side of the Road, the great Anne Tyler, Booker Prize shortlisted in 2015 for A Spool of Blue Thread, confessed that she has always been happier writing books than talking about them. Nevertheless, that doesn’t mean the writing is a doddle: “I always have to work for my books”, she says. But “I’ve written enough books now that I think I’m able to just sit back and trust that something will happen.” Indeed she has, Redhead is her 23rd novel so she should know what she’s up to by now. Her fiction inevitably centres on the myriad complexities of family life. Tyler, however, lives alone with family spread around America, so she is unaffected by the frictions of being locked down with others. Indeed, she says, “Right now I’d love to have some loved ones close enough to want to kill them.”