Mrs Caliban – Rachel Ingalls

Mrs Caliban was one of the books I had carried with me to a much needed holiday in Goa; the beach, the waves and the leisurely pace of the hours stretching before me only enhanced the joy of reading this terrific book.

About twenty pages into Mrs Caliban, Dorothy Caliban is busy in the kitchen making preparations for dinner. Fred, her husband, has invited a colleague over and the two are in the living room discussing work. This dinner having been sprung on her last minute, Dorothy makes it clear that the party will have to make do with spaghetti and salad and Fred relents. It’s a very ordinary scene – a housewife bustling about in the kitchen, cooking and assembling dishes, but suddenly this very ordinary moment is transformed into something extraordinary. Dorothy whirls around and sees an amphibian creature, a frogman, barging into the kitchen.

She was halfway across the checked linoleum floor of her nice safe kitchen when the screen door opened and a gigantic six-foot-seven-inch frog-like creature shouldered its way into the house and stood stock-still in front of her, crouching slightly, and staring straight at her face.

This is the very same frogman who has escaped from the research institute he was imprisoned in with repeated warnings given over the radio on how violent he is since he had killed two scientists while breaking free. After the initial flash of shock and fright, Dorothy regains her composure and offers the frogman some celery since he is ravenous and later installs him in a room downstairs, a place that Fred barely visits, and thus a secret Dorothy can keep till she figures out what to do next.

On the strength of such a wonderfully novel idea, Mrs Caliban, then, is a tale of the disintegration of a marriage, love and sexual freedom, grief and loss, friendship and betrayal, and the re-invention of a woman having hit rock bottom.

Our protagonist is Dorothy, a housewife residing in the suburbs of California stuck in a stagnant, loveless marriage. With the unexpected death of their son, Scotty, during a routine operation as well as a miscarriage thereafter, Dorothy is tormented by grief and despair. Her relationship with Fred has reached breaking point. Resentment brews between the two as they silently blame each other for these twin tragedies. The sense of hopelessness has reached a stage where both are too tired to even divorce. And so they stumble along…staring into an uncertain future.

During those days there were times when Dorothy would lean her head against the wall and seem to herself to be no longer living because she was no longer a part of any world in which love was possible.

Dorothy’s days are filled with household chores, frequent shopping trips, cooking meals; tasks that lack variety and signify mind-numbing tedium. The demarcation between days seems blurred pushing her into a state of apathy. A part of her is even aware that Fred is sleeping with other women, but she is now indifferent. She does derive some joy from her friendship with Estelle, a divorced woman with two grown-up children, and the two women often spending time together chatting about themselves and their lives, discussing their problems and providing each other emotional support.

Whenever she was with Estelle, Dorothy became louder, more childish and happier than when she was with anyone else.

But when one day, Larry, the frogman, lands in Dorothy’s kitchen, her life alters unexpectedly and in ways she has not imagined.

Dorothy is aware of Larry’s history from bits she has gleaned from the radio news. Having been captured from the Gulf of Mexico, Larry had been installed at the Jefferson Institute of Oceanographic Research as a specimen for scientific analysis and study. Rebelling against the continuous ill-treatment meted out to him, Larry manages to escape but not before he kills two scientists on his path to freedom.  The institute brands the incident as murder, for Larry it’s an act of self-preservation.

The reader immediately senses the perceptible shift in Dorothy’s circumstances;  a chance for excitement, love and adventure…a development that pushes her head above water, breathing new life into her, just when she was slowly and steadily sinking.  As Larry and Dorothy embark on a passionate affair, her world begins to light up, the days are suffused with colour and there’s a sharp clarity to the way she views the people and situations around her.

There, up in the sky, she noticed for the first time a gigantic mounded cloud, as large and elaborately moulded as a baroque opera house and lit from below and at the sides by pink and creamy hues. It sailed beyond her, improbable and romantic, following in the blue sky the course she was taking down below. It seemed to her that it must be a good omen.

What makes Mrs Caliban unique is not just its unusual premise but also how rich the novel is in terms of themes explored. We learn about the gradual disintegration of Fred and Dorothy’s marriage, and decline in Dorothy’s mental health exacerbated by the death of her son and the miscarriage. It’s a loss she is left to grieve alone; their marriage left in tatters leaves no room for the couple to help each other through this difficult time.

Another theme touched upon is the beauty of new ways of seeing and perceiving things. Being an aquatic creature, his new surroundings are a novelty to Larry. But as Dorothy begins to view the world through Larry’s eyes fuelled by his questions on basic human behaviour and traits, she is forced to think a lot and even question many of the things that she otherwise took for granted or about which she didn’t much care previously.

The novel is also radical in the way it questions gender roles. The Calibans find themselves ensconced in traditional gender stereotypes – Fred earns the income, while Dorothy’s role is reduced to that of a housewife following the same unvarying routine day in and day out. But that changes with the arrival of Larry. With no qualms or knowledge about the pigeonholing of roles, Larry is more than willing to chip in and learn to perform a slew of chores, easing some of the burden off Dorothy. Mrs Caliban is an exploration of love and sexual freedom; Dorothy’s affair with Larry is a revelation to her, and makes her feel alive after years of being trapped in an airless marriage. At a time, when women were expected to put up with their husbands having affairs, Dorothy refuses to follow what’s expected of her by society, choosing instead to seek some modicum of happiness in the manner she deems fit.

Furthermore, the novel is a statement on how society perceives outsiders with contempt and suspicion rather than compassion, inclusiveness and understanding. We are shown how narrowly defined and restrictive the definition of “normal” is, how anything outside that constricted space is immediately looked upon with venom, violence and hate. Being an amphibian man, Larry is branded  an outcast by the scientific community as well as the general population, a creature to be captured and tortured, rather than accepting him for who he is and treating him with more respect. Thus, despite being a tender, caring man, often Larry finds himself pushed into the corner by aggressive behaviour of the people around him and compelled to use violence as the only form of self-defense.

Above all else though, Mrs Caliban is a tale of the re-invention of a woman, her journey from a state of abject depression to that of rejuvenation and self-discovery – an evergreen theme which also forms the essence of another novel I read and loved recently – Tessa Hadley’s wonderful novel Free Love.

Within the broader strange outline of its plot, the novel has an interior logic all its own. In fact, Mrs Caliban is a testament to Ingalls’ excellent storytelling ability that she is able to blend the fantastical with the mundane to greater effect and on the strength of her assured writing the reader is willing to be led along in whichever direction she takes us. The foreword by Irenosen Okojie in my edition highlights how the book has influenced several people in the fields of art and culture – Guillermo del Toro’s award-winning The Shape of Water, particularly, is a prime example. In a nutshell, Mrs Caliban is an excellent novella, a magical, subversive fairytale and its themes of gender stereotypes and the isolation of people who don’t fit in remain relevant even today.

The Handmaid’s Tale – Margaret Atwood

The first Margaret Atwood I read many years ago was The Blind Assassin, and I remember being blown away by it.

Subsequently, I delved into her novels such as Cat’s Eye, Alias Grace, Lady Oracle – all excellent. But The Blind Assassin remains my favourite.

There was still more of her work to explore, but as other authors clamoured for my attention, Atwood was pushed to the back shelves.

And then the TV adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale was released, winning accolades and critical acclaim.

I have yet to see the series. However, it gave be the push that I needed to finally lay my hands on another Atwood novel. Also, whenever there is a TV/film adaptation of a book, I prefer reading the book first.

So here goes…

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Frontispiece from the Folio Society Edition

If it’s a story I’m telling, then I have control over the ending…

But if it’s a story, even in my head, I must be telling it to someone. You don’t tell a story only to yourself. There’s always someone else. Even when there is no one.

The Handmaid’s Tale is a dystopian novel and has become a much talked about book recently, not only because it has been adapted into a highly acclaimed TV series but also because of how its themes eerily mirror what we are seeing in the Trump era.

In the first half of the book, Atwood takes her time in setting up the story – the structure of Gilead, and the characters that people this oppressive regime, their roles and functions.

Gilead is a tyrannical system, where rules have to be strictly followed to the tee.

Within, there is also a dominant hierarchical system. Broadly speaking, the men mostly control the women. But even within each gender group, there are tiers.

For instance, in a typical household, there is the Commander with his wife. If the wife can’t conceive, there is a Handmaid assigned to the Commander, and her role is to breed children. The household also has a Martha, who is generally the housekeeper.

Women married to the poorer men are called Econowives. Essentially, every woman, depending upon her function, is expected to follow a certain dress code. The Handmaids wear the red dress with the white headgear.

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An Illustration from the Folio Society Edition

In the novel, the protagonist is the Handmaid called Offred. We are never explicitly told what Offred’s real name was before Gilead came into being. The name is a derivative of the male name Fred. So, Offred means she is Commander Fred’s Handmaid. In other words, Handmaids do not have an identity of their own. Also, the name is not unique. So if the Handmaid is transferred, the next Handmaid taking her place will also take on the same name. This itself gives the first indication that women in Gilead are controlled, are the property of men with no individuality of their own.

Gilead is a society with a strict set of rules and disciplines even when it comes to sex. Offred’s sex sessions with the Commander, called the Ceremony, are scheduled as per calendar (as is the case for the other Handmaids in other households too). Obviously, these are no passionate encounters by any stretch of the imagination. In fact, the Commander’s Wife is also present on these occasions in a kind of a weird ménage-a-trois.

All this is one part of the Gilead set-up (there’s more), and as I mentioned earlier a large part of the first half of the novel goes into greater depths into the inner workings of the regime, painting a detailed picture of its rituals.

Interspersed in all this is the protagonist Offred’s story. Offred is among the first generation of Handmaids who has seen both worlds – a free United States, and subsequently a controlling Gilead.

Being alone in her own room gives Offred time on her hands to reminisce about the past, the people she was close too.

What I need is perspective. The illusion of depth, created by a frame, the arrangement of shapes on a flat surface. Perspective is necessary. Otherwise there are only two dimensions. Otherwise you live with your face squashed up 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, criscrossed with tiny roads that lead nowhere. Otherwise you live in the moment. Which is not where I want to be.

We learn that she was in a relationship with a man who was called Luke then, and they had a child together. But Offred has no clue of their fate in the current regime. Then there is her relationship with her mother (a difficult one), and the carefree times with her best friend Moira (a nonconformist and a rebel then as she is even now).

Those were the times when they wanted a brighter future…

We yearned for the future. How did we learn it, that talent for insatiability? 

It was also when they thought about love…

The more difficult it was to love the particular man beside us, the more we believed in Love, abstract and total. We were waiting, always, for the incarnation. That word, made flesh.

And sometimes it happened, for a time. That kind of love comes and goes and is hard to remember afterwards, like pain. You would look at the man one day and you would think, I loved you, and the tense would be past, and you would be filled with a sense of wonder, because it was such an amazing and precarious and dumb thing to have done; and you would know too why your friends had been evasive about it, at the time.

There is a good deal of comfort, now, in remembering this.

In the current regime, however, she does as she is told, doing her best to remain as ordinary as possible, to blend in. And there is the fervent hope that she becomes pregnant so that a nasty fate does not befall her.

There are other important characters in the story. Moira, of course. And Offred’s walking partner, Ofglen, who is also a Handmaid but in another household.

But the key ones are Commander Fred, the Commander’s Wife (Serena Joy), and the Guardian Nick, who is the Commander’s chauffeur.

It’s in the second half of the novel where the pace of the story picks up, the tension and terror mounts, and propels Offred’s fate. For starters, the Commander, one day, expects Offred to visit him in his study, which is forbidden as per rules of the regime. Is he attracted to her, seeking a night of passion?

Then there is Serena Joy, who despises Offred for obvious reasons, but has a plan which she puts forward to Offred, convinced it will be beneficial to both of them.

How will all of these developments determine Offred’s future?

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An Illustration from the Folio Society Edition

The Handmaid’s Tale is a novel that is brimming with themes and ideas.

The central theme of the novel is how a state chooses to control women in society giving rise to gender inequality. In a patriarchal world, continuation of the male line is considered to be of paramount importance. But this power rests with women because they are the ones giving birth. Therefore, there is this need to subdue women by exerting control over their reproductive rights. They have to breed no matter what…the fact that they can have a choice is denied them. This is true in the Gilead regime in the novel, and even in the real world, especially in those regions across the globe which have an abysmal record when it comes to women’s rights.

The other core subject is the power dynamics between men and women, and the horror of a woman losing her independence to a man. There is one particularly powerful and poignant section when Gilead starts taking control, and women all of a sudden begin to lose their rights and their independence…making Offred dependent for a short while on Luke.

You don’t know what it’s like, I said. I feel as if somebody cut off my feet. I wasn’t crying. Also, I couldn’t put my arms around him.

It’s only a job, he said, trying to soothe me.

I guess you get all the money, I said. And I’m not even dead. I was trying for a joke, but it came out sounding macabre.

There’s more…

That night, after I’d lost my job, Luke wanted me to make love. Why didn’t I want to?

What’s the matter? He said.

I don’t know, I said.

We still have…he said. But he didn’t go on to say what we still had. It occurred to me that he shouldn’t be saying ‘we’, since nothing that I knew of had been taken away from him.

We still have each other, I said. It was true. Then why did I sound, even to myself, so indifferent?

He kissed me then, as if now I’d said that, things could get back to normal. But something had shifted, some balance. I felt shrunken, so that when he put his arms around me, gathering me up, I was small as a doll. I felt love going forward without me.

We are not each other’s anymore. Instead, I am his.

One of the themes in the novel is how we take things for granted, not appreciating the good moments or the importance of what we already have until it is too late.

We thought we had such problems. How were we to know we were happy?

Ultimately, The Handmaid’s Tale is a novel about rebellion, notably by the women. Each of the women in the story choose to resist the stifling and controlling environment in their own way. The obvious rebel is Moira – gutsy and daring, as is evident in her attempts to flee the regime. But there is also Ofglen, Offred’s walking partner, who later reveals to the latter that she is working for the Resistance (an underground movement), while maintaining an outward appearance of docility.

I believe in the resistance as I believe there can be no light without shadow; or rather, no shadow unless there is also light.

But what about Offred? Offred is a strong woman in her own right, even if she is not as fiery as her best friend Moira. At first, she diligently follows the rules set out for her, but as the book progresses, Offred gradually undergoes a transformation – it’s a subtle one – as she takes greater risks in working the system to meet her own ends.

I want to be held and told my name. I want to be valued, in ways that I am not; I want to be more than valuable. I repeat my former name; remind myself of what I once could do, how others saw me. I want to steal something.

Again, what will all this mean for Offred’s future?

The moment of betrayal is the worst, the moment when you know beyond any doubt that you’ve been betrayed: that some other human being has wished you that much evil.

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Various Book Covers for The Handmaid’s Tale

Which brings me to how the novel ends. I will obviously not reveal what happens, but according to me, Atwood has given the novel a brilliant ending simply because of the ambiguity surrounding it.

There is a postscript which follows, which I thought was unnecessary because it attempted to give an explanation of what went on in the story while not claiming to provide any certain answers. The more I think about it, the more I am convinced that the novel could have been better without it.

But that is just a minor quibble. Overall, The Handmaid’s Tale remains a powerful read with much to think about especially with what is going on in our world today.

I will end with a quote from an introduction given by Margaret Atwood herself, in my lovely Folio Society edition, of what she was attempting to put across in her novel…

The Handmaid’s Tale has often been called a ‘female dystopia’, but that term is not strictly accurate. In a feminist dystopia pure and simple, all of the men would have greater rights than all of the women. It would be two-layered in structure: top layer men, bottom layer women. But Gilead is the usual kind of dictatorship: shaped like a pyramid, with the powerful of both sexes at the apex, the men generally outranking the women at the same level; then descending levels of power and status with men and women in each, all the way down to the bottom…

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Vintage Dystopia and Folio Society Editions