I've said this before, that I read to get inspired. More than that, I like to read writers who know how to hold a note. When I listen to a ballad, I don't want to hear a singer go flat. Similarly, when I read a story, I want to know how skillful a writer can be with words. The Handmaid's Tale
by Margaret Atwood is a poet's novel. There are some writers who have funny catchphrases, who can have a good line here and there throughout a story. Rarely do I find myself completely hooked to every single word.
Atwood writes like a virtuoso. She makes you taste her words, roll them around your tongue, savor them. She exposes you to many flavors: wry, touching, haunting, visionary. I read for the high notes and Atwood's pitch is so bold, so clear. Rarely do I read someone else's writing and say, "I wish I could write like that," but Atwood has me awestruck.
When I finished The Handmaid's Tale
by Margaret Atwood, I felt nothing but admiration for this body of work. If the saying is true, that we fail more often by timidity than by over-daring, then Atwood's dystopian novel is a great success. She is quite bold and I LOVE this.
Some people have complained that Atwood's novel structure was too confusing. She jumps back and forth through different points in time. If people read through to the end, then it all makes clear sense. Some people have also said that the male characters are thinly sliced. To this I say, "well duh!" I know, I know--some people will never get it.
In all honesty, this book read more like an alternate history (subgenre of speculative fiction) for me. Since it was first published in 1985, I can see how publishers and some readers would label it dystopian (also subgenre of speculative fiction). Unfortunately, I think calling it dystopian has raised issues with some readers (particularly in this New York Times Review
). Readers expect a glimpse of the not-so-distant future from dystopian novels, no matter how stark that image may be in novels such as 1984
by George Orwell or even Cormac McCarthy's The Road
In Atwood's novel, the setting is the United States. God is government. Offred, the novel's central character, has been rehabilitated by "Aunts" (there are several classes of women in the novel; they are all oppressed by color coded, restrictive clothing--and they are oppressed in many other ways which I won't detail now). I didn't realize until I'd read nearly 3/4 of the novel what their names meant. I felt a little silly once I made the discovery. "Of course!" I thought. Offred, meaning "Of Fred", who is the commander in which she serves, defines her class as a "Handmaid" (another class). Handmaids are brainwashed with the Bible to become incubators for sterile wives and Commanders who can no longer conceive. In fact, this is a larger issue in the novel. Atwood hints in several places of her novel that infertility was a problem due to toxic wastes and other spoils of man-made ills.
This is where I think I break away from calling this a dystopian novel. In Children of Men
by P.D. James, we have a future that is fully realized. There are clear warnings. Atwood touches on similar topics but ultimately, her story is about human interaction, relationships between women and men, women and women. Dare I say that this novel is about LOVE?
Oh there's just so much I want to say that I think I'll have to write an essay. Seriously! These are the times when I think going back for my PhD is a good
idea. *Sigh* If I ever won the lottery, I could afford such an endeavor.
Do I recommend this reading? Two words: HELL. YES.