I just finished The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, the Claire Danes performed audiobook edition. It took two months. Not because it’s bad or I had to force my way through it, but because the novel is so sad and packed full of emotion that I could not listen to more than two chapters at a time without needing to take a break. I finally powered through to the end, so here’s my review.
I know, I should have read this ages ago. It’s a classic. There are even Sparknotes on the book (but don’t cheat, it’s totally worth the read!). I have avoided this book for ages because I think the title is awful. As a boy, it doesn’t exactly send me running to my nearest library to shoplift it if its too far away from payday. Instead, it makes me think of churning butter and maybe dressing women in the medieval period. I know this is chauvanistic bias, but I’m not perfect, and I did get over it enough to give it a try.
The novel is set in the near future of the 21st century. It’s dystopia, so America has collapsed, and the narrator (the handmaid “
OfWarren” “Offred” pronounced “Of Fred” [thanks to Catie E. for the correction]) lives as a handmaid for one of the commanders in the government of Gilead. Gilead is a right-wing Christian theocracy that has arisen from the ashes of America on the east coast. They believe in a literal interpretation of much of the Bible, and they have zero tolerance for people who don’t believe what they believe. Because of germs and radiation, children with no birth defects are prized in Gilead. That’s where the handmaids come in: they are second class citizens whose sole job it is to have sex with their commanders (in a really creepy, not sexy at all religious way) so that they can hopefully have children. Otherwise, they’ll be shipped off to the colonies where they’ll die. It’s a society where every piece of a person’s life is controlled by the religious state, and no one can be trusted.
The book is told in an oral tradition pattern of tangents and memories which lends itself easily to the audiobook format. Further, Claire Danes doesn’t disappoint, and if you decide to listen to the audiobook version, I highly recommend this production. But the power of the book comes from the utter isolation of the narrator and her complete inability to either come to terms with her surroundings or fight against them. The feeling of being trapped in a system you can’t comprehend, much less beat, is very reminiscent in my mind (though this book was published after Atwood’s) of Emma Donahughe’s Room. The book provides a cohesive narrative, but the story doesn’t seem as important as the overall atmosphere of oppression that Atwood masterfully works in throughout this story.
Krystin told me that I might not find it as heart-wrenching because I’m not a woman. Maybe not, but I still thought it was awful, and I can’t imagine any of my sisters having to go through even a piece of that.
My only critique of the novel is the ending chapter which is disconnected from the narrative. We never find out what happens to the handmaid, whether she gets out alive, whether her lover ultimately betrayed her, and what affect, if any, she had on the outside world if she did escape her servitude. I realize the ambiguous ending provides the needed contextual setup for the ending chapter about how looking at a document as only historical reality distracts from the emotional truth of those who lived it (i.e. American slave narratives), but come on! It’s a novel, and I want to know! I mean, Gilead sucked, but they’re talking about how it’s important to talk about cultural norms and how people need to be understanding.
And in the context Atwood presents it in, it’s meant to seem foolhardy, and it does. I mean:
Gilead sucks. None of us would want to live there (certainly not if you’re reading this blog). But Atwood makes it an incredibly moving place to visit, and this book has certainly inspired me to take a look at some more of Atwood’s work.
JMF Rating: 8.5/10
‘Til next time,