A dystopian classic in the vein of Orwell and Huxley, The Handmaid’s Tale is a terrifying study in how quickly oppression can become the norm. 4/5 stars.
What it’s about: In the near future, a totalitarian Christian regime has overthrown the US government. Reacting to a fertility crisis, the regime seizes any unmarried women or those whose marriages are deemed “invalid”, confiscates their children and forces them to become surrogate mothers for high-ranking officials and their wives. Their only other option is exile and death.
Every element of the totalitarian regime in The Handmaid’s Tale has been used or is currently in use. The reader may gasp in disbelief at how the women of Gilead are treated, but none of the beliefs, systems or punishments seen in the novel were invented by the author. This is part of what makes the novel so chilling: these things have happened and could happen again. Rights for the disadvantaged are usually hard won, but can easily be revoked, particularly in times of national emergency. This is not a work of science fiction.
The other triumph of the novel is the point of view. The story is narrated first person by Offred, a handmaiden on her final posting, her third and last chance to get pregnant and so save her life. However, despite her precarious position, her tone remains steady and detached, the credible voice of a woman who has been through the worst and negotiates her way through every day, struggling to survive. She tries to numb herself, the only way to preserve her sanity while being constantly reminded that she has been robbed of everything she loves. Unlike other dystopias where our main character is female, Offred is not a revolutionary or some kind of ninja/saviour figure. Her victories are small ones, tiny acts of defiance which come to thrill us as much as her. Her normality brings us closer to her and her struggles forces us to wonder how brave we would be if in the same situation.
The writing is superb. In among all the horror, there are many moments of fragile beauty which are poetic in their poignancy.
This is not a dramatic, fast-paced tale. The action unravels cautiously, meandering between the narrator’s memories, her current thoughts and the present action, as fitting the tale of a unwilling rebel, a surprise survivor.
If you’re wondering why I have given it 4 instead of 5 stars, it’s because this – like the best dystopian fiction – isn’t an enjoyable story you feel you could read again and again. Instead, this is a book which encourages you to reflect on your freedom by giving an insight into what it is like to be deprived of what many women have – rightfully and thankfully – come to regard as their most basic rights.
Also, and this may sound like a minor quibble, I’m not convinced by the coda to Offred’s story, the notes from a history symposium many years after Gilead has fallen. I can understand why Atwood included this section and how it helps us to reflect on what has gone before, but I also feel it diminishes the power of Offred’s tale in some way, which is a shame.