The Handmaids Tale by Margaret Attwood – A book review

The Handmaids Tale is a classic of science fiction literature and I am sorry to say that at 41 I have only just got round to reading. I am aware that a TV series has been produced and wanted to make sure I read the source material before I saw the first episode.

Some people might not see this as a true sci fi novel but it has all the elements. Set in a dystopian future America the book follows an unnamed female character who is bound to a family solely to produce a child. The society exhibited in the book is one in which low population and fertility rates have placed a premium on reproductively successful women to such an extent that they are stripped of their identities and indentured into a life where they are beholden to powerful men who use them procreate. This places them in a difficult social position, both revered and despised. Important and yet treated as worthless. They represent the ultimate commodification of a woman.

There is no doubt this is a feminist novel. It highlights current women’s rights issues and the way some men treat women but it so much more than this with a commentary on the role of society when taken to a totalitarian extreme. It comments on resistance and revolution and also on the innate corruption of those in power.

The narrative of the book is told from a single point of view and is actually not very exciting. The drama comes not from a dynamic and exciting plot driving you from event to event but from a deep sense of foreboding which permeates each page. We follow our heroine in two time frames, her present and her past in which we learn how she is indoctrinated, this helps personalise the character portraying her humble origins, her losses and transitions into her new life. A new life that is small and over shadowed by doubt and fear.

As the novel develops we get to see her confidence increase especially as her relationship with her master changes but this never really builds to any real denouement, she is surprisingly passive in the book exercising rare flashes of independence. She is very much the window through which we see the imagined future of the United States. What holds the horror through this book is the realisation of how easily one can see this happening even now in modern society. The collapse of the US may seem far fetched but the seeds of possibility can be seen today. Its not too hard to see how religion could stake a hold and how necessity could force drastic changes in society resulting in the quiet draining of power away from the individual to the state. We also see the control such a state can have on a society and how rule by fear and brainwashing is a tool of oppression.

Attwood writes with an unusual amount of charm for the subject matter. Her chapters are short but are succinct and impactful. She has created a fascinating world in Gideon and I am looking forward to reading her recently written sequel. I would say this book is a must on any list of stand out sci fi.

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