By: Margaret Atwood
Lying on her back and gripping the hands of the Commander’s Wife, Offred prays each month that the Commander will make her pregnant. As a Handmaid, she has been stripped of her personal freedoms and now her only purpose is to bear children for the couple who’s status has entitled them to use her body. Her one small concession is that she may leave the house once a day to purchase food. However, the shop signs have been replaced with pictures since women in the Republic of Gilead are forbidden to read or write. Offred knows that her worth is based on the viability of her ovaries, but she can remember a time when she had a husband and daughter whom she cared for and when her friends and family called her by her real name. The life she once had is gone forever, but she may still find a way to get a taste of the life she once had at the risk of losing the last thing she has to give, her life.
I want to preface this review by stating that I usually have no interest in reading dystopias. I had to read George Orwell’s 1984 when I was in high school, and I ended up thinking it was okay but decided that the genre wasn’t for me. I tend to be more interested in historical fiction and fantasy over stories of the world going to Hell in a hand basket. However, I came across this book because a dear friend of mine told me he thought I would like it, and given he is one of the most intelligent people I know, I trusted his judgement. Needless to say, I was not disappointed. Thank you, Gary! This novel is excellent, so if that was all you needed to know to want to pick this up yourself, go forth an buy the book. Please feel free to continue if you wish to know more.
I will admit that the language was difficult at first given this book was written during the Cold War. Some of the sentences also feel like one long, uninterrupted train of thought, but you will get used to that. I adjusted after about a chapter. The lack of quotation marks, however is another issue and may drive you as batty as it drove me. For context, some of the phrases that people say are in quotes and others are not. This is mainly because the story is a reconstruction of Offred’s memories as she is telling them to the reader. Therefore, she admits that not everything is exact and she doesn’t use quotes every time someone talks. Actually, much of the time she doesn’t use them at all.
That’s the gist of the aspects of the book that may bother you. Now, here are all the great things I think you will love.
Offred is an exceptionally opinionated and inwardly feisty main character. She was never lacking in personality. I relished in her small defiances from her subtle gestures to her bold actions and innermost thoughts. She was a character that I could relate to even if only on the basis of being a woman in a domineering and frightening world. She is also surprisingly funny and candid with quotes like, “The tension between her lack of control and her attempt to suppress it is horrible. It’s like a fart in church.” I don’t care who you are, that’s hilarious.
She is, above all, a feminist. Offred refuses to be brainwashed by a society that has taken everything from her including her identity. She is lucky enough to remember the time before the fall of the United States government when she was free. Yet there is something profoundly sad about her because while she has these memories, she is understandably hollow and broken. She’s constantly trying to find herself again, and her realizations are sometimes too heartbreaking for words.
The Handmaid’s Tale was a novel ahead of its time. Far more sensual than I was expecting for a Cold War era book, so I’m not surprised that it was at one time banned. Of course it was. All disturbing social commentaries got banned at some point.
This novel is thrilling, fear inducing, and distressing. At times my nerves stood on end and I felt physically ill waiting to see what was going to happen next. It was almost as if what happened to Offred was going to happen to me. Those feelings, for me at least, are why this books was so thought provoking. Everything that happened in the story felt like it had already occurred and was also somehow a warning for the future…because that’s exactly was it is! Atwood says in her introduction to the story that every detail she put in the novel was something that had already happened in history. The societal structure, the colors of the gowns, the possession and subjugation of women, etc. All of it has already happened. History repeats itself, so there’s no reason to believe this horror show couldn’t come true.
If you go on to read the final chapter of the novel (don’t worry, no spoilers!), the title is called “Historical Notes.” At first, I thought the book was over and that chapter was just a bonus section of historical references. In all honesty, I almost didn’t read it at all. Turns out the “Historical Notes” chapter was the closing I wasn’t expecting, and I was completely floored. Set in the year 2195, 150 years after the events of the novel, you can read a fictional recounting of some of the real references the author used for inspiration to build the Republic of Gilead. That’s all I’m going to tell you, but it’s really cool.
I implore you to pick up a copy of this book regardless if you like dystopias or not. I was engaged the whole way through, and the story is only 311 pages long. A worthwhile read. Now I might have to watch the show.
Overall rating: 4.5
“Truly amazing, what people can get used to, as long as there are a few compensations.”