This is a book I’d been keen to read for quite a while. I love Margaret Atwood’s sublime writing, I have previously read “Bodily Harm“, “Blind Assassin” and my favourite “Cat’s Eye“.
“The sitting room is subdued, symmetrical;it’s one of the shapes money takes when it freezes. Money has trickled through this room for years and years, as if through an underground cavern, crusting and hardening like stalactites into these forms.” (The Handmaid’s Tale, p 79)
I don’t want to say too much about the plot, part of the attraction of the book is trying to work out what exactly is happening and how society in an imagined near future got to such a point. The society is structured in a way like Brave New World, where every person especially every woman is assigned their role, there is a sense that fear keeps people in line, as in Nazi Berlin. Imagine the near future where power is overtaken by the religious right under the guise of protection from Islamic terrorism, I read this coincidentally as a couple of terrorist incidents have rocked Canadian society.
The handmaid of the title is like a concubine, no, not a concubine, “a woman for breeding purposes… a two-legged womb”, her purpose is to serve her Commander and hopefully become pregnant. Going forward is like going back when women had less freedoms, the misogyny of the past looms in this imaginary future. She remembers a past where rules were less rigid, where she had a husband and daughter and women were allowed to read. But that is gone and best forgotten, she is now a container of ovaries praying to be made pregnant by the Commander (or by anyone really).
There are some surreal moments:
“I’d like you to play a game of Scrabble with me, ” he (the Commander) says…
I hold myself absolutely rigid…
Now of course it’s something different. Now it’s forbidden, for us. Now it’s dangerous. Now it’s indecent. Now it’ something he can’t do with his Wife…It’s as if he’s offered me drugs.”
Offred reflects on images from her past and rues, “And we didn’t even know we were happy then.” Atwood has done a masterful job of portraying how quickly and uncontrollably the things by which we define our daily selves can be destroyed and rewritten, and how our fear and desire to live keeps us silent in the face of power.
Offred is not the most reliable narrator and is sometimes more interested in getting hand cream than in reflecting on how society has become how it has.
My rating 4.5 out of 5 (Cat’s Eye is still my favourite Atwood novel, but they are all well worth reading.)