Tuesday, 7 March 2017

The Handmaid's Tale

I finished reading The Handmaid's Tale at the beginning of February and I haven't stopped thinking about it since.

Let's start with what it's about, in case you don't know.  The Handmaid's Tale is set in an America not too far into the future except it's not America any more. Following a military coup and collapse of the government, its now known as Gilead.  Nuclear catastrophe means that many women are unable to reproduce and so fertile women, like our main character Offred, are passed around wealthy families as 'handmaids' with the sole purpose of producing a child for them to raise. The penalty for refusal is death and the rights of all women, not just handmaids, are extremely restricted.

The story moves between the present day Gilead and 'the time before.'  The fact that Offred can remember her life before the new regime brings it so close to home.  Some of the most upsetting parts are the ways in which Offred's rights are taken away from her, and how it is portrayed as justifiable and the right thing to do.  There are so many specific parts of this book that will stay with me for a long time to come, but one in particular that I keep coming back to is when Offred goes home to her partner after having her bank card declined, one of the first actions the new regime takes in the stripping away of women's rights.  She tells him what happened and she realises that yes, he's understanding and agrees that it's wrong, but he's not outraged, or immediately willing to do anything about it. She suspects that he doesn't mind because it's not happening to him, or maybe he even quite likes it that way.  It's only a very small part of the book, a few sentences, but that passage was so powerful to me.
The best and worst thing about The Handmaid's Tale is how completely plausible many of the events seem.  The whole thing is absolutely horrifying but so believable.  Margaret Atwood has talked about how she deliberately didn't include anything that humans had not already done to each other in some way, and much of the book is scarily reminiscent of things you hear about in the news today.  A right wing government, blaming Islamic groups for terrorism, suspending human rights under the guise of protecting the people; women reduced to their reproductive status... Reading in the context of everything that is happening in the world today gave me the chills, and really made me think about the ways in which this kind of oppression can be allowed to happen - the gradual chipping away of rights, the role of the media as a distraction, and fear as a means of control.  At times it almost reads like a prophecy - some of the things happening in Gilead are not a million miles away from the treatment of women in society today, and that is terrifying.

This was my first Atwood but it won't be my last.  I can see why she is known as a master storyteller! I was completely absorbed into Offred's world.  The Handmaid's Tale is accessible but so thought-provoking, and definitely one of the best dystopias I have read.  I appreciated the epilogue written from the point of view of a future historian for providing me with some of the background to the rise of the regime - I had questions about this all the way through and epilogue gave that little bit more insight into some of the policies of the regime and the events leading up to the society we meet Offred in.  Offred herself is quite a passive narrator and you might expect her to have a bit more fight in her, but this isn't a story about overthrowing a regime - Offred is a reminder of just how easy it is to become accepting of injustice.