Friday, November 19, 2010

Book Review: The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood

The title of this book was intriguing and I really wanted to love it.  The plot is one that I should have loved since I really enjoy reading books that imagine the future.  But I don't know . . . this novel was dry and uninteresting as opposed to being "funny and unexpected" as it's described on it's jacket.  

The novel imagines a future after the United States has collapsed.  The collapse is precipitated by the assassination of the president and the machine-gun execution of congress which opens the way for the installment of a repressive theocratic government called the Republic of Gilead.  Under this regime, all personal freedoms are stripped.  Even the freedom of choosing to bear children.  Apparently, in this futuristic world, the birth rate for "Caucasians" has dropped considerably due to disease and nuclear mishaps/pollution.  Our protagonist/narrator is one of the many handmaids or concubines (the term handmaid is a throwback to the biblical Hagar who was Sarah's handmaid and bore Ishmael to Abraham) who are sent to powerful (childless) couple in hopes of producing a baby.  The potential baby would belong to the powerful couple and the handmaid would be transferred to another couple to do the same job.  Handmaids would undergo a sort of brainwashing/training at the hands of "Aunts" who were not afraid to use torture as a tool to bring about submission.  Once placed in a household, the handmaid had to follow strict moral and social protocol or risk being killed or sent to clean the "colonies" which we are made to understand are toxic wastelands (and to which the protagonists mother has probably been sent).  There are very few options for women in this world.

We never get the protagonists real name:  we only know that she is Offred which really only means she is the handmaiden of "Fred".  We learn this at the end of the novel which takes us a university symposium of sorts studying the Republic of Gilead--or more precisely, the tapes left by Offred. We cannot be sure what happens to Offred or even if her account is true.  Lots of loose strings and holes to fill at the end.

What struck me most about this story is how quickly the United States transitions from a stable, transparent government to a shadowy, repressive government.  The new government seems to have no head--just higher ups, who are still puppets and subject (as we learn at the end of the novel) to the same kinds of judgments they have meted out over the years.  I was happy to see that Atwood imagines that there was some kind of underground--I think there will always be.  What also struck me was that when the transition was happening, one of the first things the new government did was strip women of their rights--to own property, to own themselves.

For me, this novel was tortuously long.  It was choppy and really lacked a good flow.  I sometimes wondered if Offred was really insane or at least off balance (which would be understandable).  None of the characters were really well-rounded out and I guess I could say that it felt just like something that would be produced in a society where writing/reading and any other expression of self is strictly prohibited.  I felt that Atwood could have gotten to the point long before she did. I am not totally sure what her point was although I realize it's supposed to be a commentary of sorts.  I guess I didn't get it.  There were some horrific scenes in the novel.  There was lots of pain and sadness and anxiety.  Life in the world Atwood imagines is anything but pleasant for anyone.  One of the last joys is . . . oranges.  

Anyway, I've put the movie on hold at the library.  I'd like to see how they bring this novel alive.   


Anonymous said...

That books sounds kind of interesting. Just by your description, it reminds me of The Polished Hoe, Parable of the Sower, and A Thousand Splendid Suns all rolled into one.

The Original Wombman said...

LoL . . . after I wrote this review I realized that I did indeed think the book was interesting. It kind of is like a whole bunch of books I love (especially Parable of the Sower) rolled into one!

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