Monday, 10 April 2017

The Handmaid's Tale


Book Title: The Handmaid's Tale
Author: Margaret Atwood
Date Started: April 1st 2017
Date Completed: April 10th 2017
Genres: Dystopian, Sci-Fi
Quality Rating: Five Stars
Enjoyment Rating: Four Star
Final Rating: Five stars

Reading The Handmaid's Tale in 2017 was both a bizarre and scary thing. Dystopian fiction it definitely is, but it doesn't take too much effort to recognise the things everyone can compare to the fear spreading across the globe at the moment - or has indeed existed for a long time. It deserves its place amongst most people's top feminist reads, and I think calling it admirable is too small a word.

I've only read one other book by Atwood, but something that carries over both is her ability to balance tones and contrast them at the best time. You expect to feel uncomfortable at a lot of points in this book, but it's the flashes of animalistic violence amongst docile people, and genuine love and affection which catch you off guard. You can feel the desire and the hopelessness when the extremes are put next to each other. I was definitely getting echoes of Shirley's Jackson's 'The Lottery'.

The Handmaid's Tale wasn't what I expected; it's actually a very quiet story, which makes it all the more powerful. It's about the human experience, particularly of our protagonist and those around her, more than the messed up society. Of course, the world building is a massive and integral part of the story, but at the heart of it this is a book about characters and how their situation has warped them and the way they treat others. It's terrifying because it doesn't need to stretch the imagination too far, it's already believable and because Atwood chooses to take us on such a personal story within this world everything takes on as much gravity as if we were inside it as well.
Something that makes the story even more outlandish - but arguably real - is just how clinical it all is. If you aren't aware (I'm sure you are) The Handmaid's Tale looks at a post-nuclear-accident society where the few fertile women are 'given' to high ranking couples to produce a child with the husband. The immediate thing I was expecting from that was the epitome of sexualisation in every way, but the women in this story aren't sex slaves, they're just identityless machines of reproduction - and somehow that's just as disturbing, if not more.
The 'epilogue' of the book - that I almost missed after its title of 'Historical Notes' - is the most important part, because it makes it seems like just a story again. After everything you've read, witnessed and learnt from Offred and her experiences, it's put into words by a bunch of ignorant futuristic professors in a way that makes you detach from it, just like we do with terrible things that have happened in our past. It's made humorous, flippantly questioned and pointlessly analysed, and for no conclusion at all. It demonstrates so perfectly why complacency and forgetfulness is dangerous.

Offred was a particularly good protagonist for this book because she's so human. Atwood has a knack with writing believably strong but flawed characters. Offred falls victim to both the physical and mental attacks and conditioning of Gilead, and isn't always able to rise above them. We can't all be spunky reckless rebels, but what Offred teaches us is that failing because the system has designed itself so that you fail isn't a finality; you can't beseech these women who start to conform because they want to preserve their life and sanity, but for those that try and continue for justice things aren't hopeless. All round, I think the way the different female perspectives were shown really tied everything together, especially through Offred's eyes since she's very aware of her own downfalls in judging other people. The fact that the times she managed to scramble alliances and friendships with other women were when she was the strongest and the most hopeful was also very important as well.

A book like this is so notorious it makes you think you know the whole story before you open to the first page, but of course there's always more the something than you think. Atwood made something between a moral tale and a horror story create unity in a huge community across the world, and I think reading it in itself is just as strong a stand as anything. Call it fiction, call it potential fact for the future, The Handmaid's Tale is an important and accessible book studying the human experience and corruption when it's controlled by fear and austerity.

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