Book review: The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

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There’s nothing like a TV adaptation to spur you on to read the classics you’ve been delaying in favour of novels that don’t want to make you kill yourself. With Hulu’s recent adaptation of Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, I thought I’d better get off my laurels and add Atwood’s flagship novel to my feminist credentials. We’ll pretend it didn’t take me a decade to get here.

The Handmaid’s Tale is set in a dystopian near/ever-present future where parts of the US have been taken over by a theocratic far-right. Under their regime, women are steadily and stealthily stripped of their rights and freedoms, leaving the protagonist Offred to navigate life as one of a number of “handmaids”, women attached to rich men for breeding purposes. The handmaids’ behaviour, appearance and movements are all strictly monitored and controlled. They have no personal agency and are simultaneously the desire and scorn of other parts of Gileadan society.

The Handmaid’s Tale is a fantastic book of course; presumably this is why they gave it a Booker prize! The prose is beautiful and hypnotic, capturing Offred’s dreamlike disassociation from the horror around her even as it suffocates her. I think it’s this contrast that makes the book so unsettling: it makes you question the appearance vs substance of everything, especially dearly-held notions of safety and order.

It’s no accident that Hulu should adapt The Handmaid’s Tale now when under Trump’s GOP the world’s most powerful nation leads a fresh assault on women’s rights. The Handmaid’s Tale is a timely reminder – and has been, since it was first published in the eighties – that civil liberties are hard won and far from guaranteed. While Atwood’s story may seem fantastical, its reality is never far-off.

So, what’s the verdict?

Title: The Handmaid’s Tale
Author: Margaret Atwood
Publisher: Vintage Books
My rating: 4/5 (Goodreads rating, for comparison: 4.05/5)
The book’s best feature: The writing itself; its prophetic message.
The worst feature: The oppressing patriarchy.
Trigger warnings: Rape and misogyny in general.
You’ll like this if… Liking this isn’t the point, I think.

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