The Handmaid's Tale

I feel like such an idiot to have waited this long to read this novel. Honestly, especially given that the author is Canadian, I should have read it thirty ago. The Handmaid's Tale was a nominee for the Man Booker Prize, the Nebula Award, the Arthur C. Clarke Award, as well as a panoply of other literary awards. One would have thought that this should be enough to entice me.

But Margaret Atwood has always come across as more than a little condescending and pretentious by refusing to acknowledge that she wrote science fiction and maintaining the she was writing speculative fiction. Hence, I've always been reticent to fork out my hard-earned money for works by writers who piss on the genre.

If not for the fact that the recent TV series was so well-received, I would probably not have given this novel another thought. But the more rave reviews the television adaptation garnered, the more it piqued my curiosity. As a matter of course, there was no way I could watch the show before reading the book. So I bought The Handmaid's Tale and decided to bring it with me on my Central American adventure.

The afternoon I arrived in San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua, I lay down in a hammock and the next thing I knew I had read half of the novel. To my surprise, I finished the book the next day during Happy Hour. Given its size, The Handmaid's Tale was supposed to last me about a week. After all, vacations are not about reading all day. But Offred's plight captured my imagination and I couldn't let go. I went through this novel in about 24 hours. Yes, it's that damn good. And then some!

Here's the blurb:

A gripping vision of our society radically overturned by a theocratic revolution, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale has become one of the most powerful and most widely read novels of our time.

Offred is a Handmaid in the Republic of Gilead, serving in the household of the enigmatic Commander and his bitter wife. She may go out once a day to markets whose signs are now pictures because women are not allowed to read. She must pray that the Commander makes her pregnant, for in a time of declining birthrates her value lies in her fertility, and failure means exile to the dangerously polluted Colonies. Offred can remember a time when she lived with her husband and daughter and had a job, before she lost even her own name. Now she navigates the intimate secrets of those who control her every move, risking her life in breaking the rules.

Like Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, The Handmaid’s Tale has endured not only as a literary landmark but as a warning of a possible future that is still chillingly relevant.

The Handmaid's Tale was first published in 1985. Regardless of the genre, titles that are more than three decades old often don't age well. And yet, this chilling cautionary tale is quite actual and is an even more powerful read in 2018 than it likely was back in the 80s. In the wake of the last American election and with Donald Trump's presidency and the atrocities committed by crackpot regimes in countries such as Syria, it felt as though this book had been written just last year. As Atwood mentioned in her introduction, fears and anxieties proliferate these days. Basic civil liberties are perceived as endangered, along with many of the rights women have fought so hard to win over the last decades. In such a divisive climate, hate for many groups appears to be on the rise and scorn for democratic institutions is being expressed by extremists of all stripes. Due to such political and social turmoils, The Handmaid's Tale is a work that everyone should read right now.

Given the current political climate, the premise of the book doesn't sound so far-fetched. The president has been assassinated and the entire Congress has been gunned down. The USA has suffered a coup and its liberal democracy has been replaced by a literal-minded theocratic dictatorship. The Constitution has been suspended and the Republic of Gilead is based on 17th-century Puritan roots. A think tank known as the Sons of Jacob was behind the President's Day Massacre and its aftermath, and thus created what would become the new republic. Using biblical symbols, the authoritarian regime restored an extreme version of the patriarchy. Moving in to seize doctrinal control of the country, this new religion is in the process of destroying all familiar religious denominations such as the Catholics and the Baptists. Jewish people were given a chance to immigrate to Israel and are now being eliminated if they stayed behind. Quakers have gone to ground and are helping desperate people to escape to Canada. Strangely enough, Muslims are barely mentioned. The Handmaid's Tale is a chilling visionary tale. The more so based on the fact that, in light of all that's currently taking place in the USA today, it could happen. And that's truly frightening.

The better part of the novel occurs in and around Cambridge, Massachusetts, home of Harvard University. One of the very best educational institutions in the world, it was once a Puritan theological seminary and probably why it was chosen by the new republic. The Secret Service of Gilead, akin to the SS of the Nazi party, is housed inside the Widener Library. And the Harvard wall is used to display the dead bodies of the executed enemies of the regime. The country's population is declining due to a toxic environment and female fertility is considered a premium asset. Under such a totalitarian yoke, the ruling class monopolizes fertile women and they are assigned to them as Handmaids. The biblical precedent behind this is the story of Jacob and his two wives, Rachel and Leah, and their two handmaids. The selected women's only purpose is to give birth to viable babies. In the book, women are forbidden to read, own property, control their own money, or have jobs outside of their homes.

This horrifying near-future is told from the perspective of Offred. In an act of hope or desperation, she recorded her story so that someone can someday find it and share it with future generations. We never learn Offred's true name, though we discover that she used to be married with a man named Luke and they had a daughter. She had a job, her own money, a future. And it all came crashing down when the Republic of Gilead took over. Having given birth once in the past, she was selected to become a Handmaid and has been assigned to a Commander so he can hopefully make her pregnant. Offred's story is as compelling as it is thought-provoking. Portions of her tale takes place in the present, but there are often flashback scenes in which we learn how the socio-political order unraveled and collapsed altogether and how the Sons of Jacob seized power and changed life as everyone knew it. Offred's plight, both past and present, is often heartbreaking. The flashbacks featuring her daughter and how they were betrayed at the end certainly pack a strong emotional punch. One thing I found quite interesting was that, despite her own suffering, Offred shows a lot of empathy and can sympathize with the pain of others, especially other women, such as the Wives, the Aunts, the Econowives, and the Marthas.

This book was paced to perfection. Every single chapter added another layer to the tale and forced you to keep on reading. Fascinating and disturbing, it was a page-turner of the highest order. Oddly enough, what happened to her in the past was just as absorbing as her current plight. We are the sum of all our experiences, and it was engrossing how Offred's past affected her as a Handmaid. The dire contrast between her two lives, before and after the coup, was gripping.

I found The Handmaid's Tale to be deeply moving. Doubtless, it is one of the most powerful books I have ever read. Perhaps the most powerful given the actual worldwide socio-political climate. It is a decidedly bleak tale for the most part, but there are signs of hope here and there throughout the book. Usually this would have annoyed me, but I loved the fact that we don't exactly know if or how Offred's survived the end of the novel. And that Offred's account discussed at an academic conference in the future doesn't shed much light on her own fate. This could be construed as a cop-out by some, yet I felt that it was the perfect ending to such a tragic story.

Captivating, distressing, touching, and heart-rending in equal measures, Margaret Atwood wrote a masterpiece. The Handmaid's Tale deserves the highest possible recommendation.

The Final verdict: 10/10

For more info about this title: Canada, USA, Europe.

1 commentaires:

Anonymous said...

"Perhaps the most powerful given the actual worldwide socio-political climate." ???? Seriously?