Saturday, 29 July 2017

Book Review: The Handmaid's Tale

According to Goodreads, 5 stars mean I found this book "Amazing"... in reality my feelings are much more mixed.

I've been a fan of Atwood for years, but have somehow only read a handful of her works and I was prompted into reading The Handmaid's Tale ahead of watching the TV series which I've been recording.

It *is* in so many regards an amazing book - but it is, in many many places, a deeply uncomfortable read. Some of that is in the power of what is unwritten - the brutality of the salvagings is hinted at, but these showcase executions are conducted in a surprisingly civilised fashion, right up until the moment of "particicution".

Atwood's vision of a dystopian near-future, is fascinating in its attention to detail: not just in the construction of the alternate society, but in how such a society could come about, and how quickly it could be adopted as the "norm". In this respect, this is a book about human nature: what drives individuals to dominate, and others to submit. Do you resist the imposition of a different- and brutal - set of rules? And, if so, how?

Despite the presentation of Gilead as a fiction, it is not unlike other societies that the world has known - with elements reminiscent of medieval times, as well as totalitarian regimes of the 20th century. Indeed, in the "historical notes" which conclude the book, looking back on the events described by Offred in her narrative from the the safe distance of 2195, reference is made to a study entitled "Iran and Gilead: Two Late-Twentieth-Century Monotheocracies as Seen Through Diaries."

The Handmaid's Tale is often held up as a "feminist" novel and a statement on the treatment of women in society and, in part, it is. But the presence of the "Aunts" and they way they, too, partake in the brutality of Gilead suggest this is about more than the male/female power dynamic.

For me, the power of the book is not how alien the environment it presents is, but how familiar. What we take for granted as "civilisation" is shown to be fragile - something to be worked at and built on, or else human nature will out - and who can tell if you will be a Commander, a Wife, or a Handmaid, or worse?

P.S. The latest edition of the book, released to tie in with the TV show, has a new preface by Atwood herself. If your copy doesn't have this, it is worth looking up - it can be found on Google Books.

P.P.S. This is a copy of my review from Goodreads, which you can find here.

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