Title: The Handmaid’s Tale
Series: The Handmaid’s Tale #1
Author: Margaret Atwood
Genre/Themes: Literary Fiction, Dystopia, Modern Classic, Feminism
Blurb from Goodreads
Offred is a Handmaid in the Republic of Gilead.
She may leave the home of the Commander and his wife once a day to walk to food markets whose signs are now pictures instead of words because women are no longer allowed to read.
She must lie on her back once a month and pray that the Commander makes her pregnant, because in an age of declining births, Offred and the other Handmaids are valued only if their ovaries are viable.
Offred can remember the years before, when she lived and made love with her husband, Luke; when she played with and protected her daughter; when she had a job, money of her own, and access to knowledge.
But all of that is gone now…
Book read and reviewed in February 2016
The Handmaid’s Tale is one of those modern day classics that we all should read.
It is a story about a dystopian world that is not some strange distant version that seems incredibly alien to us.
No, this is set in our lifetime and that is what makes The Handmaid’s Tale different, what makes it so chilling.
It describes what could happen if our society became a mono-theocracy and a totalitarian system was put in place. Simple freedoms were stripped, women….had no rights.
Our main character Offred…that isn’t even her real name; it is a given name, given to her because she is Of a man…belongs to Fred, her commander…the man for whom she is supposed to provide offspring.
She was once an educated woman with a career, a family, a life….now she is nothing more than an incubator. She has no rights, no freedoms, no name…
“For the ones who come after you, it will be easier. They will accept their duties with willing hearts.
She did not say: because they will have no memories, of any other way.
She said: because they won’t want things they can’t have.”
I very much enjoyed the first half of this book.
I was immediately grabbed by the storyline, by Offred, by what happened to her…
I was appalled, horrified, scared…all of the above. It did make me reflect and value my own freedoms. I kept jotting down quote after quote….
I was besotted… the writing just spoke to me, my heart was so full for Offred and all the awfulness she was living through.
I was deeply affected by her simple memories of the past and by her lack of hope for the future…
“I was nervous.
How was I to know he loved me?
It might be just an affair.
Why did we ever say just?
Though at that time men and women tried each other on, casually, like suits, rejecting whatever did not fit. The knock would come at the door; I’d open, with release, desire. He was so momentary, so condensed. And yet there seems no end to him. We would lie in those afternoon beds, afterwards, hands on each other, talking it over.
Possible, impossible. What could be done?
We thought we had such problems.
How were we to know we were happy?”
“How were we to know we were happy?” …that one line, more than anything else in the book floored me…
How many times do we take things for granted??? Do we not appreciate the simple joys of the everyday???
But then somewhere along the way I found myself getting completely detached from the narrative. Nothing seemed to happen…. The writing just plodded on and I began to realise that my connection to the story was purely based on internalising Offred’s life experiences and not because the writing was truly moving. I was horrified simply because the premise was horrifying and not due to emotive prose.
Every day was the same for Offred, the horrors she was experiencing became almost mundane. It was as if I was as institutionalised by this book as Offred was by her situation… And I began to feel that there were a number of plot holes in the storyline with regards to how Gilead came into being. There were occasions in the novel that could have filled out a little more background detail instead of just taking easy outs with regard to how the characters were afraid of retribution if they talked about what went before.
However I stayed with this book. I knew in my heart that this book was important, that there is a reason why it is hailed in the pantheon of great modern books…
And yes, the last third or so of the book certainly picked up. The story grew a little wider in its scope and I was intrigued once again; although I certainly felt more emotionally detached from what was happening by the end of the book.
One could argue that the drudgery of Atwood’s prose and her narrative choices in the middle section of the book were consciously done in some attempt to show the awfulness of Offred’s life. However, for me if these were indeed stylistic choices then ultimately, in my opinion, they were not executed in an effective manner.
Deciding on a rating for this book is tricky.
Sadly I did not love The Handmaid’s Tale as I had hoped to and I do not think that it is a novel I will ever reread in the future. I wasn’t a massive fan of Atwood’s heavy handed writing style or her narrative choices. One of the things that I truly disliked were the absence of quotation marks, exclamation marks etc. I think I get why she didn’t use them; to add a sort of flatness to the everyday life of Offred. However, I think the read suffered for it as every time appropriate punctuation was omitted I found myself being jerked out of Offred’s world due to the awkward appearance of the text.
And I missed nuance.
I missed light and shade.
This book was written in such a telling fashion. Through Offred Atwood told us a great number of things but everything was so black and white, there was no ambiguity. Villains were villains… they were monsters. But to me true monsters have a spark of humanity. They have this side to them that makes the unspeakable horrors they inflict on the innocent and the vulnerable even more terrifying because you can see that subtle glint of something that makes them seem just a few life experiences different to you or I.
However this IS an important book, an important subject matter so is that worth a few extra stars in rating this book???
Sadly, for me, I don’t believe that it is, as both the prose and the story were lacking and neither truly captured my heart. I only wish that the emotional connection I initially made with Offred had stayed with me for the entire of my reading experience.
Two and a half stars
“Is that how we lived then?
But we lived as usual.
Everyone does, most of the time.
Whatever is going on is as usual.
Even this is as usual, now.
We lived, as usual, by ignoring. Ignoring isn’t the same as ignorance, you have to work at it. …
We were the people who were not in the papers. We lived in the blank white spaces at the edges of print. It gave us more freedom. We lived in the gaps between the stories.”