Friday, September 20, 2013

The Handmaid's Tale, a Review


Even though it’s been a few weeks since I finished Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, I see Offred’s story in my mind still, like a ripe tangerine split open and glossy in the midsummer’s morning.  I see her, in her red burka like outfit, white wings as blinders on her face.  She’s tragic.  Defeated.  Her loss is gut-wrenching.  How she once had a life—a Life—so normal, just like everybody else.  Married.  A daughter.  A job.  Happy.  But all of that was in a time before the overthrow, before the government was decimated, before the regime took control and installed a patriarchal society.  Women’s rights were gone.

Just like that.

Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale is a classic dystopia that is devastating for its simplicity.  As often is the case in this genre, specifics aren’t exactly forthcoming, but there is enough worldbuilding put together to discern what’s happened.  The book is a quasi-stream-of-consciousness novel chronicling the life of an unnamed Handmaid.  The plot slowly reveals information about her life before she became a Handmaid, and much of this book is melancholic in recollection.

The way the sun would shine and cast a reflection on a man’s hair and send her spiraling backwards, remembering the way he looked in his mundane world.  How he sounded.  How he smelled.  And pages and paragraphs disjointed but connected, a weird juxtaposition that works well, especially as the frame becomes more aware.

Interestingly enough, the Handmaid’s tale never grows stale, and that’s largely due to Atwood’s superior skills as a writer and storyteller.  The language is powerful.  The imagery is rich.  (I really liked what she did with colors in this book.)  The message is a touch heavy-handed (it’s satirical) and required some strong suspension of disbelief on my part (I’m a Realistic altruist to a certain degree), but her point was well made.  I was affronted by the male portrayal throughout the book on many occasions, but her point is conceivably possible.

So what exactly is The Handmaid’s Tale?  It’s a simple story about a woman’s struggle to survive in the world.  She wrestles with past mistakes, with guilt, with a constant fear of death, with God, with many things most of us can relate to.  It’s a bleak picture of what America could become if things went absolutely cat-whiskers crazy.  It’s an absolutely makes-you-wanna-bawl kind of book if you have a two year old daughter (like I do).  It’s a funny kind of novel that elicits the occasional chuckle.


Honestly, The Handmaid’s Tale is novel that’s both striking and entertaining.  I believe Atwood was more concerned about the moral of the story than the actual plot, but both were well done.  The Handmaid’s Tale is a modern classic that may seem uninspired in this modern world of dystopias, but it’s a book that deserves its accolades and, at least in my opinion, deserves a read.  Boldly recommended.

5 comments:

Deb Atwood said...

Thank you for the review. I love so much of Atwood's work (no relation!). Cat's Eye is a favorite, and I just this year read and loved Robber Bride. Maybe I need to move this one up on my tbr list...

bibliophilica said...

Great review of a powerful book. I finally read it in the last year and it was everything all my friends (who had been recommending it to me for years) said it was.

Like Deb, earlier this year I also read The Robber Bride. Also excellent but not in the league of TheHandmaid's Tale. My post about The Robber Bride is at http://bibliophilica.wordpress.com/2013/04/08/zenia-aphid-of-the-soul/ if you want to take a look.

-Jay

logankstewart said...

@Deb: Not sure about any of her other works, as this is the only Atwood book I've ever read, but it was definitely enjoyable. Thanks for stopping by.

@bibliophilica: Powerful, indeed. Never heard of The Robber Bride. I'll have to check it out. Thanks!

contemplatrix said...

lovely review. I love that her writing can be so stark and so deep and rich.

I pulled a few passages to share with N whose class was talking about setting last week. (not ready for her to read this one yet.) I wanted to show N what can be done in a paragraph, and in a sequence of seemingly disjointed paragraphs. Atwood is a master indeed.

~L

logankstewart said...

@L: Stark, that's a good word for it. And so is disjointed, but with wonderful effect. Thanks!