(My Rating: 3/5)
My first Atwood book and my first dystopian novel, I kept changing the rating I was going to give The Handmaid’s Tale, as I progressed with the book – sometimes a 3, sometimes I felt it deserved only a 2 and at others undoubtedly a 4.
It’s hard to give a concise explanation of what the book is about, without giving too much away, but I shall endeavour!
The story is set sometime in the future and the premise is that the United States government has been overthrown and a group known as the Sons of Jacob have taken over control of the country (or at least a portion of it) which is now known as the Republic of Gilead. Women no longer have a say in anything, but are categorised according to what service they are meant to provide.
What struck me most as I began the book was that it felt like it was written in 2015 and not 1985 as was actually the case. It had a very “recent” feel to it, so I imagine it must have been way ahead of its time when it was first published. I appreciate the book’s premise (and what a scary premise it is!) and I think Atwood has done a great job of imagining and creating the world of Gilead.
The story is told in the first person, from the point of view of Offred, a Handmaid or one whose sole purpose under the new regime is to reproduce. Since pollution and sexually transmitted diseases have caused widespread infertility and a declining birth rate, Handmaids are allocated to a household where they engage in sexual activity (known as “the ceremony”) at pre-determined intervals with the head of the household (known as the Commander) in the hope that they will bear a child, to be handed over to that household.
I enjoyed Atwood’s writing style for the most part. It is intelligent and I like how she describes things, particularly her analogies. Her perceptive observations of the world we live in today shine through and her dry sense of humour greets you round every corner, often when you least expect it. (Under the Gilead regime, the set of women assigned to cooking, cleaning and ensuring that homes are well kept are known as Marthas!)
There were parts where I felt the writing dragged on a bit or was too flowery, or a bit all over the place, especially towards the end; but then when I stopped to realise that Atwood was portraying the thoughts of a woman from this day and age who has suddenly had all her freedoms taken away, is forced to perform duties she doesn’t necessarily want to and follows a dull, dreary life day in and day out, without any form of recreation, (they aren’t even allowed to read or to smoke) it struck me that the thoughts of such a woman would be just that – emotional, all over the place and flitting between her past life and her current predicament, longing for things she once took for granted and always, unconsciously, desperately trying to prevent herself from going off her head.
I think the extract below from Pg. 101 is a good example that captures most of what I’ve said about her writing style in the preceding paragraphs:
“He lets the book fall closed. It makes an exhausted sound, like a padded door shutting, by itself at a distance: a puff of air. The sound suggests the softness of the thin oniony pages, how they would feel under the fingers. Soft and dry, like papier poudre, pink and powdery, from the time before, you’d get it in booklets for taking the shine off your nose, in those stores that sold candles and soap in the shapes of things: seashells, mushrooms. Like cigarette paper. Like petals.”
Halfway into the book I realised that it would make for an excellent movie and might be one of those extremely rare cases where the movie would do more justice to the story than the book and I wondered why it hadn’t been made as yet. Turns out it has! I Googled it just before writing this review and not only has the movie been made, it has an outstanding cast – Faye Dunaway, Robert Duvall, Aidan Quinn, Natasha Richardson and Elizabeth McGovern (that’s Cora Crawley, Countess of Grantham from Downton Abbey)
Now I can’t wait to get my hands on the movie!