Saturday, 11 April 2009

The Handmaid's Tale - Margaret Atwood

Read: May 2007

With The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood achieved worldwide acclaim and joined the leading ranks of novelists across the world. It won both the Charles C. Clarke award for Science Fiction and the Governor General’s Award and was shortlisted for the Booker Prize. It is told as the aural history of a Handmaid in the Republic of Gilead, a futuristic neo-conservative Christian state in the North-East USA. The Handmaid, known only as ‘Offred’ or Of Fred, is a concubine whose only purpose is to offer surrogate progeny to the sterilised couples of Gilead High Society.

Gilead is a totalitarian state, a religious autocracy in which women have been subjugated by a return to traditional values and the men all seem to occupy highly suspicious roles within the state secret service. It is a devoutly Christian state, which has perverted biblical theology to support its highly racist and sexist social engineering, a reaction against the liberal permissiveness of the latter twentieth century. Many would say it is a highly probable state which has grown from the current rise on Neo Conservative values and ideas. Many feminists have heralded it as a masterpiece in gender studies, a horrific future grown from a divisive present. But to me, I don’t know why, it just seemed highly improbable. For one thing, no-one likes it.

As a work of fiction it is a powerful read with some absolutely delightful passages. Much of the future language mirrors that of George Orwell’s 1984 unspeak and as a tale of total repression it is successful in that we come to sympathise and empathise with the existence – life is not the word – of Offred, and to a lesser extent many of the other characters. Atwood does well to make Offred a rounded character and because we are witness to some of her weaknesses and vices as well as her victimhood she becomes very real, the sort of person you might meet any day in the street. We spend the entire book living inside her head, and this is something that Margaret Atwood achieves brilliantly. The style of prose is disjointed, and some may find the abruptly curtailed and abbreviated sentences difficult to follow but at the same time this gives the story an air of authenticity, a sense of the self censorship with which the handmaid is speaking.

What spoils this book for me a little is the ‘historical notes’ section at the end, a quasi historical attempt to offer context to the novel and provide answers to the questions the novel rises. This post-modernist ending infuriated me and I would encourage everyone out there to ignore it, DO NOT READ IT! One of the things I liked most about this novel was the way in which both the historical and geographical setting were blurred. Aside from a few opaque references to technology, this could be a story taking place anywhere at any time. This fictitiousness made it much more powerful to me, I loved the befuddled atmosphere, as if it was the dark essence of a fairytale gone wrong. The red cloaks of the handmaid’s recall Little Red Riding Hood perfectly.

Margaret Atwood seems to be an almost universally respected and acclaimed novelist, beloved across the world as one of Canada’s leading exports. She is in the mould of Toni Morrison and Dorris Lessing, one of the leading female novelists around today. Indeed, The Handmaid’s Tale is similar in many ways to Dorris Lessing’s apocalyptic future novel ‘Mara and Dann’. This is the first of her novels that I have read but with a consistently popular backlist beckoning she is an author to really get stuck into.

7.5 out of 10

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