The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood has definitely been an 'embarrassing gap in my reading', as it's generally called. When I asked my eldest daughter if she'd read it, she said it had been on the A level English syllabus when she'd been studying for it, but that her teacher had chosen to study the poetry of the song 'Brothers in Arms' by Dire Straits instead. I have to say that this shocked me rather but this post is about The Handmaid's Tale not the failings of the English educational system. (I say 'English' on purpose because things are, or were, different in Scotland and Northern Ireland I believe.) Anyway, it was high time I read it and to that end I included it in my pool of books for the Book Awards challenge being hosted by onemorechapter.com, because it won the Canadian Governor General award in 1985.
Where to start? Some books almost defy description and this is one such iconic book...
The story describes the life of Offred, or at least her 'present' life. It wasn't always this way; once upon a time she had a husband and daughter, but no more. The USA is now The Republic of Gilead and is being run by religious fundamentalists. Women are now back to being second class citizens. They are not allowed to run their own finances, read books, dress to look alluring... freedom is a thing of the past. Offred, it soon emerges, is a 'handmaid' but what this actually involves takes a while to become apparent. The crucial thing to know is that something has happened to the environment and the birth rate is dropping. Babies are being born dead or grossly deformed and the government use this fact to introduce a system based on this quote from the bible -
Give me children or else I die. Am I in God's stead, who hath withheld from thee the fruit of the womb? Behold my maid, Bilhah. She shall bear upon my knees, that I may also have children by her.
Substitute 'handmaid' for 'maid' and the picture becomes clear. What isn't so clear is what Offred (we never discover her real name) has done to deserve this appalling fate. We discover that near the end, before which we follow her daily life as handmaid to a childless middle-aged couple and learn how handmaids - and women in general - are now treated. I'm not saying any more than that as there are twists to the story that are best read 'fresh' so to speak.
This is, without doubt, one of the most disturbing books I've ever read. I tried hard to adopt a disbelieving frame of mind. As in, 'Well, that could never happen...' But I couldn't keep it up. Too much of it reminded me of Nazi Germany or Stalin's USSSR or the way women *are* treated in certain countries in the world, even today. And what would we do, as women, if our governments started to go in this direction? It's a terrifying thought quite frankly. I'm not saying that our lives are perfect in 2009, far from it, but to be so completely powerless, not to mention dispensable if you happen to be beyond childbearing age, too much of a rebel to be assimilated, or even a nun! is truly appalling.
I tried really hard not to be angry at the men in this and in the main succeeded, because some of them were as much pawns as the women, with one obvious exception. But one telling comment came when Offred describes how the women in her office were all given the sack and then her bank account was frozen. She was suddenly completely dependent on her husband, Luke, but it seemed to her that he didn't really mind too much about the way things were going. After all... he wasn't female.
There's so much in this book to talk about... it's one of these books where almost every sentence is significant - to the point of taking your breath away. Atwood's writing is very spare in places and in others, where she's describing the mind numbing boredom, not. It's certainly one of the most intense, skilful pieces of work I've ever read and, I can say now, will probably be the best book I read all year. And I am definitely handing it over to my eldest daughter!