Maybe I should have let this one marinade for a day or two before really sitting down to write a review. The Handmaid’s Tail, like it or not, is one of those novels that really makes you think; it makes you question what you’re reading and wonder how it relates to what is actually going on in our society almost twenty years after it was published. But I’m not going to wait. I’m going to write immediate thoughts because I’m upset.
I’m a huge Atwood fan. I love the worlds she creates and the themes she explores in her books, and this one was no different, but we’ll talk about that in a bit. For now, picture it- me, sitting in one of those awful 24-hour diners where the server is always female, refers to you as ‘hon’, and is too old to be working so hard and too tired to care. I’m fifty or so pages from the end, so eager to get to the finale and the resolution to protagonist Offred’s fate that my scrambled eggs and toast have officially become a very ignored third wheel in my date with Atwood.
Page after page, I can sense that Marla is becoming a bit annoyed by my presence in her booth. I’m so engrossed that I barely notice the sigh she lets out as she sets down my fourth cup of coffee. Then that “Bam!” That feeling of betrayal that engulfs you when the novel you’ve invested so much energy into ends in a way that makes you too upset to even move. I felt like a rabbit who had spent hours and hours chasing a carrot on a string that finally realized it had been dupped… But more on that in a bit…
The Handmaid’s Tale is a distopian novel by Margaret Atwood, set in the fictional Republic of Gilead. Fundamentalist Christians have, seemingly overnight, enacted a brilliantly planned government coup, seizing and freezing bank funds, closing the boarders (but this time to keep people in), and placing women back into a Middle-Ages role as property. Its a first-person narration, the story of Offred who, like all women, have been stripped of their families, their rights, even forbidden to read or socialize, and placed into one of four roles assigned for their purpose in society.
Offred is a Handmaid. Humanity is slowly dying off from infertility rates of extinctual proportions. Payment for our sins. Our destruction of the planet, viruses as a result of our dangerous disregard for overpopulation, destruction from new war techniques. Handmaids are the few, the fertile. Their function in this grim look at the future is to serve as slaves- reproductive organs transfered from home to home, family to family, and legally “raped” by the male family head once a month (reveiwer’s note: its never referred to as rape in Offred’s narration, but it is a forced sexual act for both the male and female, almost as if both parties are victims who empathize with their wrongdoer, which is the reason for the quotes) in hopes of getting pregrant and repopulating society. They are upheld as the most valued women of society while being the most reviled.
Atwood’s prose is really stunning in this work. The disjointed timeline of events in the narration flash back and forth from Offred’s present day hell, to a happier time- “The Time Before” the coup when she had a husband, a child, property, access to knowledge and rights. You root for her. The development of characters is amazing as Atwood slowly reveals the ugly traits found in the ‘good’ and human traits in the ‘evil’.
The warning calls sounded by Atwood in The Handmaid’s Tale are every bit as real and scary as Orwell’s 1984. “It will never happen here…” But in the back of your mind you know it could. Faceless corpses being hung off of walls- those of people who were known athiests or Jews or homosexuals or even scientists in The Time Before. Those who rebeled from the new Old Testament law in even the most minor way hauled away in daylight and never heard from again. Her criticism of fundamentalist religion, especially toward its disregard for women’s rights isn’t even slightly disguised.
But back to me in the diner, the ending. Reader, I don’t want to disuade you from reading this thought-provoking work just because I hated the ending. The epilogue made me so upset that I wanted to carve “Margaret Atwood sucks!” or some similarly childish graffiti into the diner’s bathroom stall. But while the destination turned out to be disappointing, the journy was exhilarating as a reader. Fans of distopian fiction or authors with a feminist perspective will thoroughly enjoy this one.
3.5 out of 5 stars.