Is there anything better than the feeling of finishing a really good book and then being able to smugly tell people about it? I think not. Accordingly, it is with great pride and condescension that I announce my third book review in 18 months. I’m practically literate, you guys!
The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood, was another book I originally did with my book club. It was actually suggested by a fan of the blog by way of this list entitled “21 Books Written by and About Women that Men Would Benefit from Reading”. When I discovered I hadn’t read any of them, it was a no-brainer to start at the top of the list, especially with the blurb referencing the title’s “dystopian” future and a promise that it was “every woman’s worst nightmare that men have never thought about”… as you know, we find it hard to resist a good generalisation around these parts.
The Handmaid’s Tale, I discovered, is a 1985 science/speculative fiction novel set in the United States of America’s not-too-distant future (as it was then). The premise of the novel is that after certain catastrophic events, the country has instituted strict social measures which segregate the sexes, the races and the classes, informed by a warped view of Christianity and the Bible. Our story is told by Offred, a handmaid – that is, a woman whose role is to live with a married couple solely to bear children on its behalf. In this world, men cannot be deemed “sterile”, even in old age, while infertile women – tellingly called “unwomen” – are shipped off to “the colonies”. To my mind, Offred’s tale is part mystery and part horror – we constantly wonder at how this could happen in a “free” U.S., as we recoil at the regressive, barbaric events she describes.
This being a review, I suppose I should mention that I quite liked The Handmaid’s Tale. Despite her use of some unmistakable 80s slang which dates the prose somewhat, I found Atwood’s writing engrossing and I was particularly drawn in by her skill for the tantalising, slow burn reveal. Quite honestly, I could hardly put the book down. Actually I have to confess that I did not, strictly speaking, “read” it but had it read to me by audiobook. So when I say I could hardly put it down, what I mean is that I took unnecessarily long walks to hear more of it. Yeah. You know when something inspires me to more physical activity, it must be very good.
I was surprised by the overt feminist discussion in the book, given its relative mainstream appeal. Atwood’s criticism of the feminine repression and sexual oppression in her fictional society was expected but her comments about second wave feminism and the politically fatigued generation that followed were not anticipated, at least not by me. Certainly Atwood is successful in making her audience question the reality of the freedom we experience as women today. While grateful that I do not live in Offred’s Republic of Gilead, I also came away from The Handmaid’s Tale wondering at the people and institutions that continue to aid and abet the patriarchy, even 30 years after the novel was written.
Of the claim that Gilead is “every woman’s worst nightmare that men have never thought about”? I would argue that in this day and age most Western women are likely not to have imagined the situation in which Offred finds herself, let alone the men. And yet Atwood makes the argument that even women who wish for a return to the old gender stereotypes are surely deluding themselves. She, to my mind, therefore makes out the first part of the claim, and certainly having male readers appreciate this female perspective can only serve to normalise women’s experience as equally valid. But the quote-giver fails to perceive the book’s argument that men have a lot to lose from the traditional patriarchal power structure too.
I would add that a progressive reader from 2013 should not expect to agree wholeheartedly with our narrator. While through Offred Atwood makes some interesting points about contemporary feminism, I was more angered than enamoured by a lot of them, and I found her queer politics to be… mildly uninformed at best. It is certainly a product of its time. But it is a good book, an award-winning and entertaining one, and one that will above all make you think – about your status, about your gender politics and the gender politics of those around you.
If you’ve already read The Handmaid’s Tale, I would love to hear what you think of it in the comments.
RESULT: Certainly one to read immediately if you haven’t already. It probably won’t take you too long!
Up next: The patriarchy lost my phone and other complaints about women’s fashion