Saturday, October 30, 2021

REVIEW: The Handmaid's Tale (book) by Margaret Atwood

The Handmaid's Tale is dystopian speculative fiction. I bought my copy used.


Content warnings for rape, homophobia, the killing of a pet cat (off-page), victim blaming, and probably other things I'm forgetting.

The protagonist of this story is referred to as "Offred," but this is only an indicator that she belongs to a man named Fred. Her real name in the time before, which was only about three or so years ago, was something else and is never mentioned.

Offred is a Handmaid in the Republic of Gilead, one of the women assigned the task of attempting to bear a particular Commander's child. As we learn what her daily life is like, and how she came to be the narrator of this story, we also learn what her life used to be like in the time before, when she had a job, a husband, and a young daughter and was like any other contemporary woman.

For once my IRL book club has picked something that genuinely worked for me. It was a bit of a surprise, since The Handmaid's Tale was something I'd avoided reading for years because it sounded deeply unpleasant.

It's true, it wasn't exactly a fun read, particularly since it's still depressingly timely. At the same time, there were aspects to the writing style that allowed me to stay emotionally distanced enough that this was more a disturbing read than a soul-crushing one.

First, there was Offred's habit of making up stories about how things might have happened - how things might have turned out for her husband, her child, etc. - often different possibilities one right after the other. Although it happened often enough to become somewhat annoying, it did allow both Offred and me, the reader, to choose whichever possible reality was most acceptable at any particular moment. For example, it was likely that Offred's husband and mother died horribly, but because she never witnessed what happened to them and, at best, only got information thirdhand, both she and I could cling to the better possibilities, or not, as needed. This ambiguity extended to the ending - it was never revealed what happened to Offred, although the "historical notes" epilogue (a fictional academic analysis of Offred's story as a surviving record of early Gilead life) discussed several likely possibilities.

Second, there was the author's decision to never use quotation marks or any similar punctuation to indicate when text was dialogue. Context could tell you when words were dialogue, but as I've already said, Offred had a habit of making stories up. As a result, none of the dialogue felt real.

I still have absolutely no desire to watch the TV show, because as annoying as the lack of quotations and all that ambiguity could occasionally be, I suspect that seeing Gilead and its Handmaids, Commanders, Wives, and Marthas (servants) onscreen would make everything too hard and sharp. The world is hard, sharp, and terrifying enough as it is. I already know that there are people who genuinely want something like Gilead to exist, although those people would either dismiss or not notice the parts where Gilead didn't even make those who supported it happy. They'd tell themselves they'd do it "better." (A quote that will stick with me: "Better never means better for everyone, he says. It always means worse, for some" (211).)

This was a good book, and a much faster read than I expected. I wish I could say that it felt over-the-top, or that the speed with which things happened was difficult to believe. Maybe I'd have felt that way prior to 2017.

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