Since I’m Canadian, I sometimes feel like I should be a big fan of this iconic Canadian author. Alas, I am not, but this was a book club assignment so I got an opportunity to read the one Atwood I have always wanted to read at some point.
Despite its undeniable success and impact, I found it interesting, but not particularly brilliant. Perhaps I am not literary enough or it’s because I’m not really a fan of futuristic dystopian novels, although I loved Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel. Sometimes when I read books like this, a nagging feeling that I’m missing something persists. I did consult wikipedia to get a handle on the various themes. Apparently the audio book is narrated by Claire Danes who does drama really well, so maybe I should have listened to it!
The Handmaid’s Tale has been called the feminist 1984. It is set after a totalitarian Christian theocracy has overthrown the United States government. A terrorist attack is staged (blamed on Islamic extremists) and a new state called Gilead is set up under the pretext of restoring order. Because Gilead struggles with infertility issues, handmaids are kept as slaves for breeding purposes only. They have no rights or freedoms and are forbidden to read. Even their own names are banished and they are given slave names denoting who they belong to: Offred (Of Fred), Ofglen, Ofwarren, etc.
The novel though, is just simply the handmaid Offred telling her story. It’s very easy to read and the backstory comes through small reveals in the narrative. What I did enjoy was Offred’s will to survive and her ability to cope and find ways to nourish her spirit. There are some beautiful sentences that did give me pause. “We were a society dying of too much choice,” and “In the days of anarchy it was freedom to. Now you are being given freedom from. Don’t underrate it.” Since this book was written in 1985, the speculated year for the novel was 2005! That must have sounded very distant then but is already ages ago now! The novel is still used today in many educational settings as a springboard from which to discuss things like political, religious, and academic freedoms and many aspects of the social sciences.
Atwood prefers to call this “speculative fiction” even though most have classified it as “science fiction.” I like her distinction. Speculative fiction is any narrative fiction that includes elements, settings, and characters whose features are created out of imagination rather than based on attested reality and everyday life. She says this book is a “no Martian type” and is about things that could really happen. In my opinion, that makes it much more frightening!