This is the first book I’ve read by Margaret Atwood. I was starting to feel slightly embarrassed about never having read any of her work, so when Yvann, Iris, Ana and Alex announced that they were hosting an Advent with Atwood event this December it seemed a perfect opportunity to finally read one. I decided to start with The Handmaid’s Tale because it’s a modern classic and the most well known of her novels.
Our narrator Offred lives in the Republic of Gilead, which was once the USA until the president was assassinated, the government overthrown and a totalitarian religious group took control. In this new dystopian society, women no longer have any of the rights or freedoms they had before; they’re not allowed to work, not allowed to have their own bank accounts, not even allowed to read in case reading leads them into temptation. Reproduction is a problem in Gilead; for some unspecified reason, possibly a nuclear disaster, the birth rate is now very low. Offred belongs to a group of fertile women known as ‘Handmaids’ whose job it is to provide children for the Commanders – the leaders of the new community – whose wives have not been able to conceive. If a Handmaid repeatedly fails to do this, she will be declared an Unwoman and banished to the Colonies to clean up radioactive waste.
The Handmaids are part of a new hierarchy and supposedly less powerful than the Wives; however, we soon discover that life is not easy for the Wives either. They have no real freedom and resent sharing their husbands with the Handmaids. The Handmaids themselves have been deprived of many of the most basic human rights and are valued only for their bodies and for the role they play in bearing children. Their individuality has been stripped away; they all wear the same long red dresses and even their own names have been taken away from them as they are now considered to be the property of their Commander, hence Offred’s new name (Of Fred).
At first I assumed I was reading about a society far into the distant future but it quickly became obvious that was not the case, because Offred remembers living a normal 20th century life with a job, a family and friends, just a few years earlier. We only gradually learn how the Republic of Gilead came into existence and how in such a short period of time everything changed and people were forced to adapt to an entirely different way of life. What makes this book so disturbing is that the type of community Atwood is writing about is not completely far-fetched or implausible. Many of the things she describes are things that have actually happened in some part of the world at some time in the past, or that might even still be happening at this moment, and so the depiction of Gilead is terrifyingly believable.
I really liked Atwood’s writing, I loved the book and I know I haven’t been able to do it justice in this post. Some books are much easier to write about than others and this, for me, is not one of the easy ones. I’ve found it very difficult to say what I wanted to say about it without giving too much away to anyone who hasn’t read it yet. While I was reading the book I was making notes of all the things I wanted to mention but when I started to type them up I decided it would be fairer to leave future readers to discover all the little details of the plot for themselves. And so I hope I’ve said enough to convince you to give this book a try if you haven’t already! I will definitely be reading more of Atwood’s work, not during Advent but certainly in 2013.