We were the people who were not in the papers. We lived in the blank white spaces at the edges of print. It gave us more freedom.
We lived in the gaps between the stories.
It’s finally here – the review of a book that was recommended to me by so many people that I accidentally bought two copies of it, and didn’t even realise until months afterwards. Easily the most compelling book I’ve read recently, The Handmaid’s Tale is a dystopian, speculative fiction of astonishing invention and dynamism. Like Tess of the D’Urbervilles, this a chronicle of downtrodden and oppressed women in an insidiously male-dominated world, but unlike Hardy, Margaret Atwood doesn’t simply content herself with pointing at her characters and going: “Look how awful this is! Look! Isn’t it horrible?! So horrible right?!?!”. Instead, Atwood, persuasively presents her ideas to the reader in an intellectually engaging way, creating a novel that is almost in dialogue with its reader.
I’ll briefly compare it to the other dystopian novels I’ve read for this blog to try and illustrate why I found this book so brilliant. Nineteen Eighty-Four was, to me, remarkably prescient in many respects, but I’m sure it did not seem to bear much relation to the world in which it was published. In that respect, “Handmaid” has more in common with Brave New World, which grounded its wilder concepts (such as soma, widespread promiscuity, and the assembly-lined-industrialism at the heart of the city) in recognisable elements of the world at the time of publication, thus allowing the reader to analyse their own world as they read. It also allowed BNW to function as more of a satire of certain cultures (mostly of American society and attitudes).
The Handmaid’s Tale goes even further with this – it is set in a much nearer future than the other two books mentioned, and even describes a compellingly plausible chain of events that established the world as the novel presents it. Furthermore, our protagonist often reminisces about how the world used to be only a short while before the events of the novel, juxtaposing the two contrasting settings to really drive home the unsettling dissonance at the heart of The Republic of Gilead for its people. Gilead, in the novel, is the societal paradigm that succeeds the United States of America after a scarily well-organised coup which eradicates Congress, the President and the Constitution in one fell swoop. It is a theocracy, a religious dictatorship, which reinstates a Biblically-structured patriarchy in response to the objectively terrifying widespread drop in birthrates, and also in response to the subjectively worrying change in women’s attitudes to what they can and can’t be in society following the women’s lib movements of the 1960s. All of this drives towards fascinating examinations of gender roles in our present-day society.
One of the things I loved most about the novel was the way it was written. Offred, our narrator, is so well realised that it’s often difficult to remember that she’s fictional. Her inner turmoil as she attempts to repress her own emotions enough to fit in with such an oppressive regime are heartbreaking, and often hilarious when she resorts to acerbic asides as a coping mechanism. She is, as she describes herself, “a refugee from the past” – she’s drowning in her memories, torn between the hugely altered life she’s been forced to leave and a past which she cant hope to return to. It gives the book a kind of choppy structure, but it really helps you get under the skin of the narrator, humanising the events of the novel and helping to illustrate the horror of the Gileadian regime. It’s emotionally involving yet often completely self-conscious, with a consistently quotable style and regular direct address that draws the reader’s attention to the language choices used in order to really drive a point home. It’s tricky balancing act, but Atwood makes it work.
Nowhere is this more ingeniously realised than in the novel’s masterstroke of a conclusion. Simultaneously calling attention to the fictional history of the story and yet making the reader question the entire narration of the story as it’s been relayed to them, it allows the reader to look back at the story with a critical eye and really think about all that they’ve just read. In a worrying subversion of the novel’s feminist themes, it could easily be taken as Offred’s entire story being reinterpreted by a man to become more palatable to the masses – and if that’s not a topical and satirical jab at the world of entertainment today (especially the lack of major Hollywood films about women, or being directed or written by women), I don’t know what is.
The Wikipedia article for this book (I know, I need to start using better internet sources!) has an awful lot to say about how timely the book was when it was published, but I think it maintains a great deal of relevance today. In a world in which ISIS is a literal theocracy that thrives on the subjugation of women and aims to justify tyranny under the banner of a major religion, The Handmaid’s Tale has a lot to say about the mindsets of those who oppress and those who are oppressed.
Before I end this review, I’ll touch briefly on the two maxims that run throughout the novel; the first of these is “Context is everything” and the more you view the novel through that lens, the more power it holds. The second, perfectly sums up the novel’s balance of humour and horror, intelligent use of language that’s also wonderfully, jarringly profane, and, in the end, how much Atwood is willing to reveal and yet conceal within her narrative:
Nolite te bastardes carborundorum.
There are very few books I think should be read by all, but this one is good enough to earn that accolade. It is thought-provoking, inspiring, unsettling and brilliant, and if you can’t get hold of a copy then don’t worry – I have a spare.