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This review contains spoilers.

I watched HBO’s comedy/drama series Girls in fits and starts; a few episodes here, a season there. It’s taken me a while to decide how I feel about it. Girls does address a lot of issues left un-discussed by other series’ (such as the ‘problems of privilege’ and female sexuality/body image); it is certainly more serious than a soap, and funnier than the average sitcom. However, for me (a woman about to leave the twenty-something era of her life) Girls is at best un-relatable, and at worst embarrassing.

Girls – created by and starring Lena Dunham – is a series that sits somewhere between Gossip Girl and Sex and the City on the ‘shows-for-women-by-women-about-women’ spectrum. Its main characters (four female friends in their early to mid-twenties) have moved to New York City in an effort to fulfil their Me-Generation dreams. Dunham plays Hannah Horvath (the Carrie Bradshaw of the group), an aspiring twenty-six year old writer who finds herself struggling after her parents announce they will no longer support her financially. Allison Williams is Marnie Michaels, Hannah’s beautiful but insecure best friend; Zosia Mamet is Shoshanna Shapiro (read Charlotte York), the studious and (up until the end of season one, at least) virginal member of the group; and Jemima Kirke plays Jessa Johansson, Shoshanna’s wild and unpredictable British cousin (the Samantha Jones element). I didn’t notice until I began writing this review that each main character has an alliterative name, and I have no idea of the significance of this.   

I was initially impressed by Girls – particularly when, in the very first episode, Hannah’s parents tell her she is effectively on her own for the first time in her life. I liked the way the series portrayed problems relevant to my generation: a sense of privilege, entitlement, ‘special-ness’, and the resulting disappointment when reality hits and all those high expectations are dashed. I was excited to see how the characters dealt with these things, interested to see them grow and change, become less selfish and more realistic.

Over the course of three seasons, however, I’ve been disappointed. The characters seem to have grown more selfish, not less; to have become increasingly confused and lost, rather than wiser. Girls also (predictably and disappointingly) focuses mostly on the relationships the main characters have with men. Granted, they are not all traditional romantic/sexual relationships, but they still seem to take precedence over storylines that deal with career choices, family relationships, and other equally important aspects of being female in the twenty-first century. Hannah’s on-off relationship with Adam (played by Adam Driver) is sometimes sweet, but is more often disturbing, dark and unhealthy. Shoshanna’s, Marnie’s, and Jessa’s relationships are equally dysfunctional. I know ‘stable’ partnerships don’t make for high drama, but for a show that (I assume) is trying to portray a somewhat realistic version of life for this demographic, surely at least one healthy, successful partnership wouldn’t hurt the ratings too much.

Girls is kind of murky. Both in the way it looks – lots of night shots, wet New York Streets, greens, browns, blacks – and the way I feel about it. There are some wonderful moments: Jessa, for example, helping an older woman to commit suicide in the season three finale. Here was a scene that was perfect for this character, a moment where Jessa has a real experience, a moment of gravity, a moment that could change her. However, it wasn’t given nearly enough attention; the relationship was rushed through before it had any time to build, and left me feeling like I’d missed an episode.

Overall, I find it hard to like any of the central characters. Hannah is endlessly self-involved; Shoshanna is shallow to the point of caricature; Marnie is needy needy needy. And while I can certainly see aspects of myself in each of these girls, they are only the bad aspects. Left out of Girls are all the twenty-somethings who have gone through the Generation-Me bullshit and come out the other side as hard workers, committed partners, and generally compassionate and wise people who no longer constantly seek external reassurance or praise.

Maybe the problem is that Girls is meant for twenty-somethings, and I’m just a few months away from not belonging to that bracket anymore. Maybe I’m the wrong audience, maybe Australian and American women really are that different, maybe I’m taking the show too seriously. I know at twenty-five I was (in many ways) a mess, much like these girls. But I also knew that it wasn’t okay, and I made an effort to move past it. Hopefully, in season four, Girls will, too.

Girls first aired in 2012. Season three premiered in 2014, and a fourth season is scheduled for 2015. The show’s content is partly inspired by Lena Dunham’s own experiences.

July 2014

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The Elephant Valley Project

Motorbike engine

Going into the mountains

When will it come back?

(-Mondulkiri haikus)

This is the second post about a recent trip to north-east Cambodia (see Cambodian Safari Part I). After a few days in Kratie we headed across to Sen Monorom in Mondulkiri, to visit the Elephant Valley Project.

The predominant mode of transport between Kratie and Sen Monorom is public minibus. Minibuses depart daily at around 8 a.m. from the main depot. Tickets are 30,000 riel ($7.50), and the trip takes about five hours. This bus service can get very crowded; we waited about forty-five minutes to leave Kratie while the ‘minibus manager’ (a bossy man with a shaved head and a silver whistle around his neck) squeezed as many bums onto seats as possible. We stopped to pick up more passengers along the way and at its fullest I think the bus must have been carrying about 35 people, plus babies on laps, big hessian bags of supplies, and a motorbike (that at one point started leaking oil down the aisle). The minibus probably stopped as often as Sorya did, but it was much faster (at times frighteningly fast, with scenery whooshing by and the driver honking at every corner) and got us to Sen Monorom exactly on schedule. Travelling to Phnom Penh from Mondulkiri at the end of our trip, however, was even better: we booked tickets with the Kim Seng Express Van service ($11 per person), which got us back to the city (about 350 kilometres away) in less than five hours. The Kim Seng vans are really comfortable, fast, and only seat about 12 passengers.

Wet early morning

Trees shake with wind and water

Not raining but rained

(-Mondulkiri haikus)

Almost as soon as you cross into Mondulkiri province the landscape changes. The terrain is more mountainous, there is mist, the air is much cooler, and the trees are a different sort of green. It seems to be almost always raining, at least a little bit; showers come in waves, like gusts of wind. Sen Monorom (the provincial capital) is small – I think the population is around 8,000 – and has only recently (thanks to the improved road between Mondulkiri and Phnom Penh) become a tourist destination. We had a few brochures and maps handed to us as we got off the bus, but weren’t hassled very much at all.

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Nature Lodge

We stayed at the Nature Lodge, a $1 moto-taxi ride from the centre of town. The Nature Lodge is a sprawling collection of bungalows and tree-houses, run with ecological and social responsibility in mind (like Le Tonle in Kratie, they provide jobs and training for local people). Staying at the Nature Lodge reminded me simultaneously of being on a farm, in the forest, and on a school camp. The rolling green land is shared with cows and horses, and the information leaflet notes that “As we are in natural settings, you may encounter a little friend like a gecko, bird or squirrel”. Our wooden bungalow (just $10 per night) was very cosy, and came complete with a hot shower, ingeniously powered by a gas bottle (very welcome on cool Mondulkiri mornings). The central bar/restaurant is full of comfy booths, and its jungle-like design felt like something out of The Magic Faraway Tree. Friendly cats, veggie burgers, very generous glasses of red wine for $2.50, homemade apple pie, and good music made us very happy.    

Mud is everywhere

Sucking like a kid on thumb

Brown like chocolate

(-Mondulkiri haikus)

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Bousra Waterfall

We had a couple of free days in Sen Monorom before seeing the elephants. Some of that spare time was spent writing (hence the haikus) and relaxing, but we also headed out to explore the surrounding countryside. The staff at the Nature Lodge helped us rent two motorbikes, but as soon as I got on mine I realised I wasn’t going to be able to ride on the extremely muddy and slippery roads. My boyfriend kept his, and I hopped on the back of a moto-taxi. We headed first to Bousra – arguably Cambodia’s most famous waterfall – about 40 kilometres out of Sen Monorom. Parts of the drive were very difficult (thick, sucking red mud had a few cars bogged on one particularly bad hill) but generally the road was good. At Bousra we paid a 5,000 riel ($1.25) entry fee, and walked a short way down to the waterfall. It was a sublime sight in the truest sense of the word: beautiful and terrifying. A huge amount of roaring water tumbled over jagged black rocks and sent up a constant spray in our direction. It became difficult to tell what was waterfall and what was rain.

On the way back my moto driver stopped by the side of the road to show us a traditional Bunong house (the Bunong are the indigenous people of Mondulkiri province). The house was low to the ground, long, with a thatched roof. Inside a fire burnt in the middle of the floor, and the walls were lined with raised benches. Some piglets darted in and out. I tried out my basic Khmer skills and asked a few questions of the woman living there: How many people? (2 families) How long? (10 years). It was interesting, but felt a little strange to wander into someone’s house largely uninvited.

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Coffee cherries

Our last stop for the day was a coffee farm, where we drank strong Mondulkiri coffee from little white cups, and then wandered through rows of trees hanging with green coffee cherries. There were a few little plantations of pink strawberries, too.

On our last day in Mondulkiri we donned raincoats, pulled on our hiking shoes, and went in search of elephants with the Elephant Valley Project. EVP is one of many elephant-tourism projects in Mondulkiri, but (in my opinion) it is the most ecologically sound. EVP is part of the Elephant Livelihood Initiative Environment (E.L.I.E), an NGO dedicated to protecting elephants in Cambodia. There are about 260 wild elephants left in protected areas of the country, and about 140 of those live in the Seima Forest in Mondulkiri. Of the approximately 83 captive elephants in Cambodia, about 54 live in Mondulkiri. EVP (started by Englishman Jack Highwood) strives to rescue and rehabilitate elephants that have spent most of their lives in captivity – either with a Bunong family or working in the logging or tourist industries (i.e. giving rides to backpackers around temples in Siem Reap). Sometimes EVP will take elephants that are sick or tired for short ‘rest’ periods. Elephants that come to the Elephant Valley Project are allowed to roam in large amounts of forest, accompanied by a mahout whose job it is to make sure they eat enough, bathe daily, and keep off farmland. Visiting elephants with EVP as a tourist means hiking into the forest and observing these beautiful creatures in their natural habitat. Because these elephants have spent much of their lives around people they are not shy, and while most of them didn’t approach us, they didn’t seem at all bothered to have us following them around.

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Mud

Because of the rain and the resulting slippery roads the only way to get out to EVP’s section of the forest is (at least for the moment) by four-wheel-drive. About eight of us (plus our guide) piled into two cars and bumped and slid our way to the edge of the jungle. From there we walked, careful not to slip on red mud and green moss. We passed through farmland, where bright green rice was supplemented by corn, cashews, and cassava (apparently this root vegetable is in great demand in China, where they are somehow able to turn it into a biofuel). We then crossed a rapidly flowing stream (water up to our knees), and finally spotted our first elephant.

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Bath time

How to describe an elephant? Big. An outlandish creature, like no other animal in appearance. It still amazes me that these animals are real – in some ways it is easier to believe in unicorns than elephants. They are hairy close up, and muddy-coloured (at least, before they take their daily bath). Their ears are pink at the edges and seem thin and floppy, like ragged cloth, and they flap them back and forth when they’re happy. Huge, intelligent eyes; agile trunks that move like they are creatures of their own. Toenails the size of bathroom tiles, they can crush a banana tree log with a tap of a foot. Slow, plodding, and gentle, but so large that it is frightening when one walks towards you. They spend most of their time eating (everything – grass, fruit, bamboo); they need to eat 10% of their body weight each day. While they eat they socialise – they touch each other with their trunks, and make a huge variety of sounds: the classic, happy trumpeting, but also a deep rumbling, and a chirping-squeaking that reminded me of birds. They are perfectly adapted to their jungle environment – if it weren’t for humans, they would thrive. Their ability to exist in such dense forest, to disappear so quickly and completely into the green, is incredible.

Over the course of the day we met nine different elephants in two different areas of the forest. Each elephant has its own personality, and I could easily get carried away writing about each of them. But for this post I’ll stick to the two that I found the most memorable – Onion and Easy Rider.

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Onion

Onion was the first elephant we met, and (remarkably, given her history of ill-treatment) the most willing to approach us. She had been suffering from a toothache, so one of our guides had brought in some bananas and some long leafy lemongrass to help ease her pain. Onion came to EVP after being over-worked in the logging industry. She was so exhausted she just stopped working, and to keep her going her owners cut a hole in the front of her head and put a hook into the open wound. You can still see the scar on her forehead. She hasn’t managed to make friends with any of the other female elephants at the project, but for a while she was very close to a male – named Bob – who recently died. The staff at EVP were careful to keep Onion away from the place where Bob is buried, as apparently it’s not unusual for an elephant to die of a broken heart.

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Banana tree logs before elephants …

Easy Rider is one of two elephants that EVP tried to purchase from an owner in Phnom Penh. Before she came to the project she spent some time helping to hunt down poachers in the forest, and one day walked into a metal trap which pierced her deep into her side. Her owners at the time called Jack Highwood out of desperation, and Jack (who is not a vet) had to study books of elephant insides in order to put her back together. With limited resources, he had to seal her wound with superglue! Years later, when she came to EVP, Jack was amazed and delighted to realise that she had survived.

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… banana tree logs after elephants

I’ve always been a little in love with elephants, and this was by far the best pachyderm experience I’ve ever had. It was magical to observe these animals in an environment so close to their natural habitat; to see them chatting, munching, relaxed and happy.

Other Mondulkiri tips …

-There is no international ATM in Sen Monorom, so make sure you bring enough cash for your trip (unless you have an Acleda bank account).

The Greenhouse Bar and Restaurant is a great place to stop in town for a meal, information, and Wi-Fi. They also had some adorable puppies when we visited.

The Hefalump Café (opposite the Greenhouse) is a good place to stop off for information on other eco-tourism projects around Sen Monorom (as well as coffee and cake).  

July 2014

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The Mekong

A couple of weeks ago I finally got the chance to explore a part of Cambodia I have wanted to visit for years: the north-east. We headed first to Kratie, and then went east to Mondulkiri province (next week I will post about the Mondulkiri leg of the trip). Aside from wanting to get out of the city and see more of Cambodia’s beautiful and varied countryside, I was eager to spot a couple of rare species in the (almost) wild: elephants in Mondulkiri, and river dolphins in Kratie.

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Tarantulas

The tiny town of Kratie (in the province of the same name) sits right on the banks of the Mekong River, about 340 kilometres from Phnom Penh. At the moment Sorya Bus Company seems to be the only mode of public transport available between the two provinces (I think it’s possible to hire a private car, but that can be expensive). To put it mildly, Sorya is not my favourite company. The bus is slow (when we went to Kampot with Sorya – a distance of about 150 kilometres – it took 5 hours) and stops frequently to pick up and drop off passengers and freight. Our journey to Kratie ended up taking 9 hours (almost as long as my flight from Phnom Penh to Melbourne) and was punctuated by a stop in Kampong Cham province (we were greeted by a crawling silver bowl of black tarantulas waiting to be roasted), the smell of spilled prahok (fermented fish paste), and two hours of broken air conditioning.

Kratie itself is sleepy and charming (with frequent reminders of French colonialism in the forms of architecture and breakfast crepes) but the river is what immediately caught my attention. The Mekong (especially in the wet season) is impressively large – a wide, brown expanse of water that stretches from one green bank to the other. The Mekong is the longest river in Southeast Asia, and the 12th longest in the world.

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Le Tonle Guesthouse

We weren’t sure what to expect from accommodation in Kratie (there isn’t a lot of info online), and ended up staying in a few different places. By far the best was Le Tonle Guesthouse, a ten minute walk from the centre of town. Le Tonle is a Tourism Training Centre set up to provide vocational opportunities for young people in Cambodia’s north-east. The guesthouse is a converted Khmer wooden house, and the rooms (there are only four of them, so book early!) are lovely. There are two shared bathrooms (not at all a problem since there were only four couples staying at the guesthouse) and both were very clean and beautifully designed. The staff were very friendly, and the service (in both the guesthouse and the restaurant) was excellent. We paid $18 for a room with air conditioning, and the food was very reasonably priced ($1 for a coffee, $2 for a banana pancake). We wished we could have stayed here longer, but they were booked out for the rest of our Kratie trip.

On our second night we ended up at the Heng Heng II Guesthouse on the riverfront. Rooms are cheap and basic, but very sterile, and the staff were either apathetic or absent.

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Rajabori Villas, Koh Trong

For our last night in Kratie we ventured over to Koh Trong – a small island on the Mekong – to stay at Rajabori Villas. Koh Trong is just a ten minute boat ride from the Kratie dock (opposite the Santepheap Hotel). The public boat costs 1000 riel (25 cents) per person and is something of an adventure in itself; the tiny vessel is loaded up with people, animals, food, and even motorbikes. From the boat it is a $1 moto ride to Rajabori along a skinny footpath (there are no cars on the island) lined with small houses, kids, chickens, and (in the rainy season) a lot of mud. Rajabori’s villas are large and beautiful (and the most expensive accommodation of our trip, at $58 a night), and reminded me of the sort of dark-wood colonial houses of a Rudyard Kipling story. There is a pool, and our villa had a gorgeous claw-foot bathtub. However, there is no Wi-Fi or air-conditioning, and when we were there the electricity wasn’t turned on until around 5pm. But if you’re looking for way to escape the wider world for a while, Rajabori is perfect.

On our second morning in Kratie we headed 16 kilometres (about 20 minutes) out of town to Kampi to see the dolphins. The waiter at the Red Sun Falling restaurant on the main road put us in touch with his brother, a tuk-tuk driver who drove us out along the bumpy village road (an $8 return trip). We trundled past wooden houses, dogs, turkeys, smoking brick-kilns, kids packed 3-to-a-moto, and stalls of a special type of sticky rice (krolan). The ticket office was empty when we reached it; I called the number on the window and got an instrumental version of “I’ll Be Right Here Waiting For You”. After a moment a man wearing a POLICE cap led us down a muddy trickle of a track to the river, where we climbed into a fishing boat with a smiling driver and puttered out into the Mekong. We chugged along at speed for about forty-five minutes, through whirling currents and past half-submerged trees. Finally, we reached the ‘dolphin pool’ (I still don’t know why – in the whole wide river – the dolphins choose to hang out here), and our driver turned off the motor and moored us to a scraggly tree.

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On the way to the ‘dolphin pool’

The Irrawaddy dolphins (listed as a vulnerable species by the WWF) are found in a 118 mile stretch of the Mekong River between Cambodia and Laos. It is estimated that there are only around 90 river dolphins left in this area. The animals are at risk because of accidental capture in fishing nets, and increased damming of the Mekong. Irrawaddy dolphins (unlike saltwater dolphins) have slightly rounded, bulging foreheads and short beaks. They can grow up to 3 metres long, and weigh up to 150 kilograms.

The dolphins didn’t come too close, but they weren’t shy, either. They rose out of the brown water every minute or so, their bodies smooth and grey, with small blow-holes in the tops of their heads. Their mouths curved up, so it looked like they were smiling. Their eyes were like little pockets, their noses small and snubbed. They made a puffing noise each time they surfaced, making it easy to spot them. They didn’t surface for long, but they did so often. There were perhaps ten dolphins in all – though it was hard to keep count. Mothers and babies swam together, puffed together, surfaced together, perfectly synchronised. We sat on the front of the boat for maybe half an hour or longer (it was one of those moments when time seemed to stop), taking in the stillness and quiet of the river, our heads zipping back and forth each time a dolphin puffed and dived. It was a wonderful privilege to witness freshwater dolphins rising and falling and puffing, in the great open silence of the Mekong.

Other Kratie tips …

-There is an Acleda ATM about 700metres from the market (useful if you have a Cambodian bank account, but I’m not sure if it takes international cards).

-Dining options are fairly limited, but we had a delicious vegetarian curry and beef Lok Lac at Tokae (behind the river, near the market), and Red Sun Falling has a good breakfast menu (and a small bookshop).   

-The boat to the Kampi dolphin pool cost us $9 per person.

Next week – Cambodian Safari Part II: Elephants in Mondulkiri    

Phnom Penh Noir is a collection of short stories set in Cambodia. The 15 stories were selected and edited by Christopher G. Moore, author of the Vincent Calvino crime fiction series. In the introduction to the collection Moore notes that ‘noir’ can mean many things. In these stories, noir is an overarching atmosphere of darkness; it is about fear, fate, and morality. According to Moore (and with this I would have to agree) Phnom Penh is a particularly interesting setting for a noir collection: it sits atop a history of genocide and war crimes, and is these days often plagued by corruption, lawlessness, and violence (of course, this is only one aspect of Cambodian society).

I was a little disappointed with this collection. While the stories are entertaining, many of them are no more so than the average TV cop drama. The quality of the writing – at a sentence level – also leaves much to be desired. Sentences are often clunky, there are some awkward metaphors, and a few clichés (especially when it comes to titles). The setting is interesting, and in some cases the country is well described – but most of these stories revealed nothing new (to me, at least) about Cambodia.

There is just one female contributor to this collection, and only three Khmer writers. I am fairly new to the literary scene in Cambodia, but I know that there are a large number of talented Khmer writers out there (you only have to look as far as Nou Hach) and many of them are women. The result is that Phnom Penh Noir comes largely from the perspective of male expats, and quite a few of their stories seem to be preoccupied with interactions between ‘bar girls’ and foreign men. Cambodian women, in a number of these stories, are presented as sort of exotic ‘femme fatale’ characters – in only two stories are women given a strong voice of their own.

All of that being said, in this review I’m going to focus on the two stories I enjoyed most in the collection – Suong Mak’s “Hell in the City” and Prabda Yoon’s “Darkness Is Faster Than the Speed of Light”.

Suong Mak – at just 27 years old – is a prolific writer. He writes mostly in Khmer, but his novel Boyfriend (about a gay-male couple) is being translated into English. His story “Hell in the City” is one of the only stories in Phnom Penh Noir that comes largely from a female perspective, and features three very strong female characters. “Hell in the City” is the story of the rape of a young girl and the subsequent search for her attacker. Suong’s descriptions of Phnom Penh are raw and detailed, and give great insight into the everyday lives of Cambodian people. Particularly interesting was discovering more about how the Khmer media works (something that is largely inaccessible to me as an expat who cannot read the Cambodian language). Suong’s story – perhaps most importantly – tries to understand poverty, and how it is perpetuated. When the mother of the girl who has been assaulted is asked if she wants vengeance, she replies: “No … I’m afraid it might come to hurt us again”. The narrator comments that “[m]any victims said the same thing … They knew only of inequality, exploitation, and assault – the things they felt belonged to the poor”.   

Anne Enright (in talking about Raymond Carver) said that “a short story is about a moment in life … after this moment, we realise something has changed.” Prabda Yoon’s story – “Darkness Is Faster Than the Speed of Light” – achieves this wonderfully. Yoon was born in Bangkok, and his 2002 story collection won the S.E.A. Write Award. “Darkness” – also written from a female point of view – is set at Olympic Stadium, a wonderfully unusual setting, and a welcome break from stories about Angkor or the Phnom Penh bar-scene. “Darkness” begins with the hint of a sinister back-story, climaxes with a strange and disruptive incident, and ends with a shift in perspective for its main character. It is short, crisp, and slightly surreal.

Other pieces in the collection that deserve mentioning include Kosal Khiev’s poem “Broken Chains” (Khiev is a powerful writer with an incredible story: you can read more about him, and see him perform “Broken Chains”, here). Bopha Phorn’s “Dark Truths” is a well-written story that tackles – in a surprising and refreshing way – the problem of paedophilia in Cambodia. Bopha Phorn is the only female writer in the collection, and the first Cambodian woman to win the Courage in Journalism Award. Christopher G. Moore’s “Reunion” and Richard Rubenstein’s “Sabbatical Term” delve into the country’s recent history of genocide, and also make for interesting reading.

Phnom Penh Noir is published by Heaven Lake Press (HLP). Twenty percent of the proceeds will be donated to selected Cambodian charities. You can read more about this collection at phnompenhnoir.com.

This review contains spoilers.

I very recently bought my first tablet, mostly for reading on (accumulating books gets heavy when you are in the habit of moving countries every few years). I’d held out for a while; I love the feel of books, the smell of books, highlighting sentences and marking pages. The Handmaid’s Tale is one of the last books I’ve bought second-hand, and on the inside cover is the inscription – in large, lovely, loopy handwriting – “Happy Birthday Claire loads of love Steve Carra Jay & Megan”. I realised that this is something else that is lost in the digital age – the personal traces left behind, the shadows of readers gone before. I’m still very happy with my tablet, but perhaps a touch sadder about my waning connection with ‘real’ books.

All of which really has little to do with The Handmaid’s Tale, the first Margaret Atwood book I’ve read. Atwood is one of those authors who is often talked about, and deservedly so. The Handmaid’s Tale is beautifully written, the story is compelling, and the structure is interesting. Not five minutes after I purchased this book, however, a friend of mine commented that he had hated having to read it in high school. Perhaps his complaints wormed their way into my brain somehow, but something about The Handmaid’s Tale didn’t sit quite right with me.

First published in 1985, The Handmaid’s Tale is set in the Republic of Gilead – a dystopian future society in which a Christian dictatorship has overthrown the American government. The country has reverted to Old Testament practices, resulting in a society where women are repressed – by both men and other women (a strict hierarchy of female roles encourages distrust and forces women to turn against each other). The story comes in first person present tense from thirty-three year old Offred (literally ‘Of Fred’, the man she is enslaved to). Offred is a ‘handmaiden’ (read concubine), and her sole purpose is to provide her Commander and his wife with children.

In numerous interviews about The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood makes it clear that she doesn’t regard her novel as science fiction, but rather speculative fiction. According to Atwood (in this article by Joyce Carol Oates) the idea for the novel came from hearing people in America comment on the repressive regimes in Iran and Afghanistan. “It can’t happen here,” people would say, which to Atwood was a cause for concern. For Atwood, America’s strong Puritan Christian roots made her feel that such a society could eventuate in the US and Canada, if the conditions were right. When she wrote The Handmaid’s Tale, Atwood wanted to show that the Republic of Gilead belonged in the realm of possibility (hence the term speculative, not science, fiction). “I would not include anything that human beings had not already done”, she notes in this article in The Guardian, “…or for which the technology did not already exist.”

I think it is this idea of real possibility – a fundamental part of the novel – that felt slightly unbelievable to me, and kept me from becoming fully involved (emotionally and intellectually) in the reading experience. Part of me was always sceptical. Perhaps I’m being naive; I certainly agree that these sorts of awful things can and do happen in some countries, and (coming from Australia) my understanding of American culture and history is nowhere near comprehensive. But I still can’t bring myself to believe that something like the Republic of Gilead could occur in today’s America. Angela Carter – a great friend of Atwood’s – called The Handmaid’s Tale “a superlative exercise in science fiction”, and in this sense the novel works well. Thinking about The Handmaid’s Tale as some sort of prophecy or warning, however, feels like taking things a little too seriously.

I did find some of the language in the novel to be overly serious; a little too dramatic and emotional. And repetitive. I liked the ambiguous ending to Offred’s story, but couldn’t see the point of the epilogue at the end of the book. It felt far too explanatory (spelling out aspects of Gilead that were subtly placed in the story itself), and didn’t reveal any new information, aside from the fact that the society had eventually failed (something I think most readers would have assumed, or at least have enjoyed wondering about).

I really liked the way Atwood structured the story – balancing immediate and detailed descriptions of Offred’s daily life (shopping, sleeping, fucking) with glimpses of her past as a free woman. In this way, the world of Gilead was revealed slowly, and held my interest. Atwood is certainly a beautiful writer, with a gift for descriptive language. I was never bored, and overall I found The Handmaid’s Tale to be enjoyable, at times disturbing, and perhaps a little too “speculative”.

Margaret Atwood is a Canadian writer. Her novel The Blind Assassin won the Booker Prize in 2000. The Handmaid’s Tale has been challenged by some high schools for its explicit content. In 1990 a film version of the novel was released, with a screenplay by Harold Pinter.