The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood

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The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood

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Category: General Fiction
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: John Lloyd
Reviewed by John Lloyd
Summary: A dystopian parable with lots to say about womanhood, that is rightly deserving the tag 'modern classic'.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 336 Date: October 2010
Publisher: Vintage
ISBN: 978-0099511663

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A Times Educational Supplement Teachers' Top 100 Book

In the near-future USA that they call Gilead, society has changed. For the worse, of course. The population is dying out, and people who are capable of breeding the next generation are given a cherished status of Handmaid - gifted to any male of enough esteem, called a Commander, who balances the household with his wife and what is practically a walking womb. Other women get drudge work, or run horrid finishing schools for the Handmaids, or are packed off to what are reported to be polluted hellholes abroad, for laborious work for life. Men are restricted too - Handmaids are off-limits to everybody but their Commander, and those households are patrolled carefully by other eunuch types. It's up to our nameless narrator and main character, however, to show us just how cherished the status of Handmaid feels.

And show us very well she does. It's a strong narration, guiding us through her life with eminent detail, and putting us completely in her shoes. (Laceless - her womb is of such prestige she can't be allowed to self-harm.) We get a dripping of facts about her new society, where we slowly realise why she has been given some kind of name, what the birth of a newborn means to both Handmaid and the Wife who will bring it up, and more. Atwood shows so many authors who have tried to do this and failed, just how you can subtly drop new ideas and creations into real human life and make them comprehensible, and put into our understanding without a bludgeon.

There will be some people reading this for whom this novel sounds too much like science fiction. Well, it is a genre piece - but only to a point. (Atwood herself calls it speculative fiction, and I must agree.) In fact, for me that was one of the whole reasons for the book - we must not let science drop from our lives to such an extent as these people have, turning from all thoughts of modern, 20th Century life in favour of such an idiotic Puritanism. There are rumours within Gilead of eco-disasters - nuclear power plants carefully built on earthquake fault lines causing problems and more, but it might just be down to the simple fact that we in the Western world don't much care to procreate to the levels of even maintaining our populations. But nothing could justify what happens in Gilead.

There will be some people reading this for whom the novel sounds too much like feminist fiction. Well, it is - but again, only to a point. You have to care for our narrator, whatever gender or persuasion you might be. She is a commodity because she has bred before - and a lot of our sympathy is generated because she remembers her partner and child. Future generations, she thinks, will be better off, as they won't remember freedom - they will be happily accepting arranged marriages, walking surrogacy, women constricted in what they can own, who they can talk to - and even, with the help of those bonnets that remind you of a collar for a cat with stitches - what they can see.

There will be some observant people reading this review, or even the back cover of the novel, who will notice that not a lot is said about the plot. Indeed, such is the mood of this piece I can't remember much being written about it (or the film version) that could concentrate on the events inside, what with such a strong proposition for the set-up. But rest assured there is a plot, which deals with our narrator, her Commander, his male help, the companion she has on her walks to the shops, and more. Events from her prior life, her recent past in finishing school and in the present merge to give us a strong narrative.

So is there a particular reason why this should NOT be read? No. I can't find myself eulogising about The Handmaid's Tale as much as some, but I can see why it has become a modern classic. The feminine approach to the Big Brother is most distinctive, and matches the great first person narrative. There are numerable examples here of a horrendous society, and as absurd as it sounds in abstract, when reading about it from the inside as we are here, it all sounds awfully plausible. That, then, is Atwood's concern - the status of women these days is in the balance. Yes, we don't really need to have Playboy Bunny costumes saved as a pinnacle of civilisation, but we need to cherish the liberties we have - because some decisions to cancel them out are only too simply made.

It's great, then, that we have the choice to read books such as this, and I would recommend you to make that choice and read this. It's 25 years old, and I've only picked it up with the impetus of the book reviewing gods (and the kind Vintage Classics people, who I thank) - but it is definitely one of those justifiably termed modern classics we should all read at least once.

We have long admired Atwood in these quarters, with titles such as Alias Grace - a discernment shared by the Booker Prize people, who have short-listed her five times.

This book featured in our June 2017 Newsletter.

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