I hope you can all forgive me for being so behind the times when it comes to this book. The television show based on the The Handmaid's Tale is a huge hit, and ever since it came out I have been telling myself to grab a copy of the book. I avoided watching the show so that I could read this first, but now that I have I'm not sure I'll be able to watch the show at all.
The Handmaid's Tale is a 1985 dystopian novel by prolific Canadian writer Margaret Atwood. The book is about a near-future society in which there are rapidly falling fertility rates. A Christian totalitarian regime takes over in the United States, calling itself Gilead. Women are stripped of their rights and society is strictly divided into a hierarchy. Many of the wives of powerful men are unable to have children, and so a group of still-fertile women are individually assigned to various high-ranking men to bear their children. These women are known as handmaids.
The narrator and main character in The Handmaid's Tale is, as you can tell by the title, one of these handmaids. She is the handmaid of a Commander named Fred, which means she is referred to as Offred ("of" and "Fred"). Before Gilead was established, Offred had another name and a family, but as the totalitarian regime took over, she lost those things.
The Handmaid's Tale is not told in a strictly linear way. Offred splits her narrative between the present - in which she is a handmaid - and the life she had before Gilead was established. She reminisces about her former freedoms and relationships, and she imagines all of the possibilities of what could have happened to the people that she loves. Over the course of the book she explains how she came to be a handmaid.
What's so powerful about the book is the fact that these kinds of regimes - ones in which women have limited rights and are subjected to abuse and fear - are not uncommon. They have existed in the past and continue to exist in the world. This book came out ten years before I was born, but it still feels relevant. Atwood herself said that she based everything in the book off of something that has happened in the world.
I'm genuinely surprised by how disturbing I found this book. As some of you know from reading my past reviews, I am a self-professed true crime addict. I read books about serial killers and I watch documentaries about cults. But this book affected me in a way that I wasn't prepared for. I don't want to give spoilers for those of you who haven't read The Handmaid's Tale, but the most frightening thing about the dystopian world that Atwood describes is the way that it came to exist. Although there were many resistors, the groups that wanted to suppress women and strip their rights were powerful and had support, even from other women.
Atwood's style of writing was also very different from anything I was used to. She tells the story from Offred's perspective. Although Offred is a sympathetic character (at least in my opinion) throughout much of the book, there were moments when I felt like it was extremely hard to relate to her or understand her decisions. This is, of course, the point of the book. We don't know what we would do or how we would behave under extreme conditions where our ways of life have been altered. I would question Offred's behaviour and then I would feel guilty or angry with myself because, even though she is a fictional character, hers is a struggle that I can't possibly understand.
The Handmaid's Tale was frustrating to read. Although Atwood gives the reader enough information to follow the story and understand the basic idea of what is happening in Gilead, there are so many questions that are left unanswered and so many storylines that are left unfinished. Offer's perspective is limited because she has no access to technology and no way of contacting her friends and relatives, so she can't explain what has happened to everyone. The book was also frustrating because it is hard to find someone to blame for what is happening in Gilead. Atwood manages to make even the most despicable characters human in a way.
The Handmaid's Tale is definitely one of those books that you have to read. I haven't watched the show, but from what I've heard the book is quite a bit different. I would recommend that people who are fans of the show have a go at the novel.