The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood: A Review

A book that is also a musical or play is #13 on the 2018 Reading Challenge list. I already planned to read The Handmaid’s Tale, and decided to use it for this prompt. This was one of several books I was determined to read this year, so I fit it in wherever I could. This book has been adapted for stage, and more recently for television.

The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood, is a speculative fiction tale about a dystopian future where an extreme theocracy has taken over the United States. In this repressive regime, women belong to one of three classes – Wives, Marthas and Handmaids. Wives are allotted to the Commanders in what appears to be a war heroes reward sort of system. Marthas are servants – housekeepers, cooks and the like. And Handmaids are those who’ve been deemed fertile, and are assigned to Commanders for the sole purpose of producing progeny for the Commanders and their Wives.

Told through the voice of Offred (Of-Fred), a Handmaid, this is a chilling picture of what humans are capable of doing to each other. Written as a recollection sometime after the events of the novel take place, the narrative is somewhat rambling. It shifts and wanders as memories often do. Certain colors and images stand out as Offred simultaneously recalls her life as a Handmaid and her life before. Here is one of my favorite images:

Then we had the irises, rising beautiful and cool on their tall stalks, like blown glass, like pastel water momentarily frozen in a splash, light blue, light mauve, and the darker ones, velvet and purple, black cat’s ears in the sun, indigo shadow, and the bleeding hearts, so female in shape it was a surprise they’d not long since been rooted out.

Margaret Atwood uses beautiful and often surprising language as she tells her story. I was captivated by this book, though not at first. In the beginning, the writing feels dull somehow. Not dull as in boring, but rather as if all the edges had been worn off. It felt blunted. But as I read on, I could feel everything being stripped away, much as it must have happened for Offred. And through this, I realized that the dullness was intentional. It builds the sense of fear and paranoia that is rampant in Offred’s reality.

I enjoyed this book and feel it is one worth reading. I have to say, however, I don’t really like the way it ends. The ending comes a bit abruptly, and I am left feeling vaguely unsettled with many questions unanswered. But then again, perhaps this too was intentional.