It is shocking that it took me well into my twenties to finally pick up and read Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. Not only do I consider it required reading for anyone who calls him or herself a fan of SF literature, but it also features on pretty much every single reading list I’ve ever followed. I now see why and feel quite smug about finally being in the club of Atwood-readers. I intend to stay.
Published by: Vintage Digital, 2012 (1985)
ebook: 336 pages
My rating: 8,5/10
First sentence: We slept in what had once been the gymnasium.
It is the world of the near future, and Offred is a Handmaid in the home of the Commander and his wife. She is allowed out once a day to the food market, she is not permitted to read, and she is hoping the Commander makes her pregnant, because she is only valued if her ovaries are viable. Offred can remember the years before, when she was an independent woman, had a job of her own, a husband and child. But all of that is gone now…everything has changed.
How does one go about reviewing a book that is not only considered one of the best ever written but was published a full year before one’s own birth? I suppose one doesn’t. Then again, what I do here in my little bloggeress haven is really only putting my impressions into writing, not fully reviewing books (I believe that’s only possible with spoilers and I avoid them so you guys can enjoy the books I recommend in full). It took me a long time to finally read Margaret Atwood’s probably most well-known book and I’m happy to say that, again, the WWE Women of Genre Fiction Challenge gave me that last push.
The story throws us into a world not too far in the future where women are separated into castes with specific purposes. There are Wives, whose job is fairly obvious – they are married to important men – there are Marthas and, because humanity has a lot of trouble procreating, there are the Handmaids. Offred, the first person narrator, is one such Handmaid and as such is given to a childless family in order to give them a baby. I won’t go into detail of how this is done but you will get to see the “ceremony” in the book.
Margaret Atwood leaves it, I believe intentionally, vague for a long time what happened in the past that has led to such a sinister society. We get only glimpses of how the system works but slowly, the narrator fills in the blanks to create a full picture of horror. Offred, whose real name we never find out (she is just that, the Handmaid “of Fred”), supplies us with flashbacks of her time Before. What impressed me the most is probably how the author managed to make me feel so strongly for the character, almost missing her past with her, even though all we get are little snippets of that happy family life.
The narrative has a beautiful flow to it and certain sentences completely hit home. They don’t even have to be about important dramatic issues, they just happen to be a string of words, tied together in a way that is both poetic and meaningful. These sentences come up at random and without warning, they struck a chord with me on so many levels that I have to be impressed, if not by the plot or characters, at least by Margaret Atwood’s prose. That said, both the plot and the characters were also brilliant.
Many people I’ve talked to find Offred too passive. She is integrated into this new society and just tries to do her job and stay alive, dreaming about what her husband and her child might be doing – if they’re still alive, that is. There is an underground movement and Offred is aware of it, yet she never joins them. Personally, I completely understood her. Fear makes you numb, it keeps you even from trying to break out of a life you loathe with all your heart. The will to survive eclipses any hope for a better society you may have. So Offred is happy about the small victories she is allowed in her structured, anonymous life. Until the Commander, the man who is supposed to plant a baby inside of her (there’s nothing romantic or sexually arousing about it, trust me) invites her to visit his room alone…
This book may be older than I am but, oh God, has it impressed me. It is clearly as relevant today as it was when it was first published. Apart from telling a gripping story of one woman’s struggle to survive and keep her sanity, it deals with issues that, in our society, haven’t been resolved. It is about gender and sexuality, about equality (not just of men and women but of religion as well). It never whacks you over the head with a hammer, just gives you enough to make you think for yourself. That is what a great dystopia is supposed to do. Hold a mirror up to current society and say: Look, if we keep going this way, we may end up like this.
There are parts of the book that felt a bit long or drawn-out, but in the end, I wouldn’t change anything about it. People have expressed different opinions about the ending. I loved it. It doesn’t really give us an answer or a resolution to Offred’s story, but it gives us something better. Hope.
THE GOOD: Fantastic writing, characters and a world that are fully fleshed out, that terrify and make you think. All in just a few pages.
THE BAD: One slow part just around the middle. If you got that far, however, you will no doubt push through it.
THE VERDICT: With the current craze of YA dystopian novels, it is refreshing to remember what a dystopia is all about. Margaret Atwood is a magnificent writer who only whet my appetite with this little novel. That teaches me: The classics, even the recent classics, are worth picking up when fed up with what’s currently published. Most highly recommended!
RATING: 8,5/10 Truly excellent