Book Review: The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

the handmaid's tale

Rating: A-/   I have a weakness for stories taking place in dystopian societies. The way I see it, society is so fucked up at this point, a 1984 or Fahrenheit 451 type scenario hardly seems that outlandish. On the other hand, I’ve always been wary of feminism. I know, I know, the stereotype of the man-hating stone butch with a chip on her shoulder is just that, a stereotype. There are certainly issues involving women’s rights that need attending to, and there are a lot of decent feminists trying to make a better future for the girls of tomorrow. I know all that, of course; but God help me, when I hear the word ‘feminism,’ I cringe a little. There’s nothing rational about it, it’s just a prejudice I have.

    The Handmaid’s Tale combines these two themes- dystopia and feminism- to surprisingly successful effect. Gilead is the  society that emerges from the remains of the United States after a sect of right-wingers take over the country. In the blink of an eye, women have pretty much no rights and, in a future where sterility and radiation-induced birth defects run rampant, are only valued for their ability to bear a child. Offred is one of these women, a ‘handmaiden,’ which is pretty much a fancy way of saying ‘sex slave.’ She lives in the house of the ‘Commander,’ a leader in the movement and husband to a withered-up, invalid shrew of a wife. The commander continues to try unsuccessfully to get Offred pregnant;  and of course, Offred has no say in the matter, making the mechanical, passionless sexual encounters essentially rape.

Offred provides a unexpectedly beautiful, somewhat emotionally detached narration, often slipping in her past memories, when she had a husband and a young daughter. Offred forms a kind of relationship (friendship might be too strong a word) with the Commander, who reaches out to her out of loneliness and boredom. She has an affair with a guy who works for the Commander, Nick. She lays out her day-to-day life in this Hellish regime and compares things to other things. She thinks over (or perhaps the right word would be ‘overthinks’) everything. Yeah, this isn’t exactly a plot-driven book, but it’s written so beautifully you aren’t likely to care much.

Although a number of side characters (Moira, the Commander, the unfairly detested Janine) are more interesting than the heroine herself, the book surprisingly works on almost every level. You would think such a book would be didactic and preachy, but it becomes practically impossible not to fall, for a moment at least, under it’s spell. The subject matter in this book is horrifying, but never lurid, for Atwood manages layer-by-layer to find traces of beauty and humanity in the minutiae of this horrid society.

In the process of beguiling its readers with it’s fucked-up Orwellian society where the power of choice is taken away, not just from the women, but from most of the men too, Atwood brings up a lot of feminist issues and does some wicked good world-building while she’s at it. This book isn’t just for feminists, it’s for everyone who enjoys good writing and solid character development.

I’d even venture to say that male readers would probably enjoy this novel, after they get over the preconception of it being a ‘woman’s book.’ Atwood manages to drive the themes home without hitting the reader over the head with it, and The Handmaid’s Tale is full of lush descriptive passages (without getting bogged down in them) and startling insights into just about everything, from love to loss to the complexities of life and the intricacies of womanhood. It reads like the best elements of poetry, without the bloated self-importance that seems inherent to some poets’ work. I recommend this book, it’s easily recommendable. Put down your iPad, turn off the television, and read this book. You’ll thank me for it.

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