The Handmaid’s Tale | Book review

***Spoiler Alert***
A future without hope is not a world I want to live in, even within the pages of a book. As social commentary, Atwood’s dystopian novel seems to have it out for everyone: men, women, God.

To be fair, Atwood explains what drove her to write The Handmaid’s Tale in an essay in the New York Times. In 1984 when she wrote the book, she was living in West Berlin, still encircled by the Berlin Wall. “I experienced the wariness, the feeling of being spied on, the silences, the changes of subject, the oblique ways in which people might convey information, and these had an influence on what I was writing.”

One of the problems with dystopian novels is the tendency to overstate their case.

While that helps me understand the impact of her experience, I’m still not a fan of this book. One of the problems with dystopian novels is the tendency to overstate their case. Another problem is the aftereffect– leaving the reader with a sense of hopelessness and anger.

As a comparison I recently finished The Girl with Seven Names, an account of a young girl’s daring escape from a truly dystopian nightmare of the North Korean regime. One of the most surprising aspects was how much she longed to return to the love and warmth of her family back home. Even in the darkest places there is often kindness, beauty and love, more precious for their rarity. This aspect is sadly lacking in most dystopian novels, particularly this one.

Even in the darkest places there is often kindness, beauty and love, more precious for their rarity.

In case you haven’t read it, The Handmaid’s Tale is a story about a young woman trying to survive, living at the mercy of those with no mercy.

The people in control (you never learn much about them) are faceless entities who’ve created an ultra-Puritanical society. Women are no longer work permitted to work outside the home and are highly restricted in all their activities. Men are hung in public on a daily basis, for un-named crimes.

Women are assigned to highly structured domestic groups. There are the elite Wives and the EconoWives. There are dumpy Martha’s who do drudge work. There are the Aunts who oversee the rigid training of the Handmaids. Handmaids are highly regarded because they are chosen to have babies, but their training is more of indoctrination into the mindset of the new society than anything involving pregnancy.

Before I get into all the reasons I really disliked this book, I’ll go into what I liked.
I loved Ms. Atwell’s descriptions. As an example, in the opening pages Offred, the main character, describes the room she’s in, a former gymnasium. “I thought I could smell, faintly like an afterimage, the pungent scent of sweat, shot through with the sweet taint of chewing gum and perfume from the watching girls, felt-skirted as I knew from pictures, later in miniskirts, then pants, then in one earring, spiky green-streaked hair.” Exquisite isn’t it? Her writing had me hooked.

I liked the main characters ‘voice’. She’s observant and asks a ton of internal questions about this new world she finds herself in.

The fact that Offred apologizes for telling her awful story is rather poignant and was the most emotional moment of the book.

What I didn’t like. Everyone was cruel, vindictive, or just cold. Ok. It’s dystopia. The main character is never really kind or cruel. In fact, she’s mostly bland. The fact that Offred apologizes for telling her awful story is rather poignant and was the most emotional moment of the book.

I hated the main character’s name, Offred. This is getting picky I know, but I think character names are important. The other handmaids’ names started with ‘Off’ as in Offglen, Offred’s shopping companion, and I began to think of them as the Off sisters which helped lighten things a bit for me.

So Offred is placed in a household for the sole purpose of having The Wife’s baby. The husband was known as the Commander. She’s a surrogate, but it’s not a sterile fertility procedure, Instead, she’s forced to endure a kinky sex ritual every month. That scene was too weird for words. Even weirder in this ultra-Puritanical society.

In spite of this odd relationship, Offred and the Commander develop an interesting companionship. Two other characters I thought could have provided an interesting diversion for Offred, if not actual partners in crime. One was her best friend, Moira, who managed a daring escape early on. The other was a sexy male chauffeur with lots of implied sexual tension.

Besides the Commander and the chauffeur, all the other men were characterless and faceless with squeaked-out group descriptions. There were the Guardians of the Faith, and the all-seeing, all knowing Eyes who drive around in black vans arresting people.
Fear rules every relationship. Offred is not allowed to talk to anyone. It’s forbidden for women to read or seek answers.

The ending is vague and implies that she may get rescued which is the very last thing you want for your Protagonist.

Poor Offred gets none of her questions answered. At the ends it implies that she may get rescued which is the very last thing you want for your Protagonist.  “Whether this is my end or a new beginning I have no way of knowing,” Offred says. “I have given myself over into the hands of strangers, because it can’t be helped.”

I very much wanted her to rise above her circumstances and find her way out of the darkness.

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