Wednesday, December 1, 2010

The Handmaid's Tale - Margaret Atwood

About the Book

It is the world of the near future, and Offred is a Handmaid in the home of the Commander and his wife. She is allowed out once a day to the food market, she is not permitted to read, and she is hoping the Commander makes her pregnant, because she is only valued if her ovaries are viable. Offred can remember the years before, when she was an independent woman, had a job of her own, a husband and child. But all of that is gone now...everything has changed.

I read this book and finished it at least a week ago. I should have written this review before then but sometimes, with certain books, you just have to wait a while and let things settle before you can actually write about them in a coherent manner. After bopping around on Goodreads I learned that this book was used as a college reading project for many individuals. I wasn’t one of them, but I can see why it would be good for that sort of thing. This is the kind of book I wish I had read in college because writing a paper about it would have been a blast (yes, I’m one of those weirdos who actually enjoys writing papers).

I had to prepare myself to read The Handmaid’s Tale each time I picked it up, not because it was terrible, but because it was so emotionally intense it was difficult to read unless I was prepared to face the emotions Atwood drew up within me with her stunning prose. While I have read emotionally intense books before, I haven’t read any that were intense in this way. This book was slightly depressing. I’d even use the word forlorn to describe it because there was such an incredible amount of loneliness portrayed by the protagonist. It’s incredibly rare that I read a book that actually forces me to be emotionally prepared to face it before I read it, like this one.

I know that may turn some people off because most people don’t read a book to be upset by it, but don’t be turned off by that. In fact, it should be a compliment to Atwood’s stunning prose. Atwood is, perhaps, one of the absolute best authors I’ve read in a long, long time and it really is a mark for her stunning talent when an author evokes such strong emotions in their readers.

As if Atwood’s amazing writing isn’t enough for you, her story is profound. Sometimes you can read a book on a surface level and enjoy it that way while reading it deeper if you choose to. That just isn’t a possibility with this one. There is no way a reader can pick up this book and just enjoy it for enjoyment’s sake. Atwood is weaving together a tale about socioeconomic class, religious indoctrination, gender roles and much more. I could go on for days about the messages within this book but that’s not what this review is about and I think part of the beauty of it is the fact that every person who reads this book will come away with something new and different.

This book seems to resonate on some level with almost everyone who reads it. Due to that, there are movies and plays based on it as well as educational discussions and much more. Atwood’s stunning writing combined with her vibrant and unique world mix together to insure that The Handmaid’s Tale will be a book that both speculative fiction and non speculative fiction readers will enjoy. It has also pushed this book into the ranks of literary classics.

It makes me wonder why I didn’t read it a long, long time ago.

The Handmaid’s Tale is nicely paced though it should be noted that this book is more character driven and almost observational than action packed. It’s told in the first person perspective of our protagonist, Offred, who is basically a religiously approved concubine whose sole job is to bare a child for the officer who she lives with, as his wife was unable to do so. Because of this intense situation between two women and their shared man as well as the religious precedence which determine their life, Offred is often a quiet observer to the world around her, only taking part in it when necessity demands it. This insures that the world Atwood has created is amazingly vibrant and easy to visualize but also that the reader quickly sympathizes with Offred even to the point where it’s hard to tell where Offred ends and you begin.

This book has another interesting quality I feel I should mention. There are almost no quotation marks in The Handmaid's Tale, which means that there is almost no real dialogue of the type you’d typically read in almost every book out there. Instead this book almost seems, to me, like a few journal entries that Offred is writing in her head. She remembers discussions, and sometimes goes into depth on them but most often just summarizes the general feel of them and what the conclusion was. While it did take me a little while to adjust to this unique form of writing conversation, I did adjust and quickly learned the feel of it. However, there were parts at the beginning where I had to go back and clarify “oh, okay so someone is talking here, but not here…” I don’t know if that makes sense. You may have to read the book to get what I’m saying on this one.

Another minor complaint I had about the book was that it was hard to sometimes get the feel for Offred’s narrative in the sense that Atwood does insert flashbacks into the storyline. While these flashbacks are easy to pick out, sometimes I felt that they were disruptive to the overall flow of the work. And, while I’m at it, I should say that while Atwood’s writing is stunning, even phenomenal, though sometimes she waxed a little too philosophical or too descriptive. While I absolutely loved those moments because it really allowed me to bask in the glory of her prose, I can see how it might become frustrating to some readers and may, at times, hover at the brink of the “get on with it, please” line.

Atwood does a remarkable job at slowly revealing the character through her flashbacks and the “current time” narrative. Slowly she reveals who Offred was both before her current situation and during it. By doing this she manages to portray Offred as almost two separate women who she slowly unmasks at the same time. It’s actually quite genius how she manages her character development in this vein. I found it tantalizing to slowly learn about who Offred was and how she came to be. This style complimented the flow of The Handmaid’s Tale nicely. If Offred had been bluntly unmasked and displayed for the reader, it would have stuck out like a sore thumb and, in my opinion, ruined the quality of the book. It’s also a good way to think of the plot and why, perhaps, thinking of this book like a “slow boil” might be good. It develops slowly, piece by piece, but somehow Atwood keeps it compelling, fresh and interesting and the ending is a fantastic compliment to the overall feel of the work – a delicious rolling boil.

All in all, I think it’s pretty obvious that I loved this book. It’s deep; the kind of book you can read over and over again and learn something new each time. Atwood’s writing is, simply put, stunning. Her intensely drawn emotions combined with the amazing perspective of Offred combine to make the character, plot and world jump off the pages and wrap around the reader. If sometimes the plot does get slightly bogged down with details and the dialogue style takes some getting used to, it’s incredibly easy to overlook. This truly is a book that will stick with you long after you finish it. While many may find the incredibly dark and raw emotional tone of this work to be off putting, it’s worth giving it a try. This book wasn’t written to be a comfort read, but a thoughtful read that you savor slowly. While this is technically a science fiction book, it’s written in such a way that it transcends genre and can be appealing to readers of many different persuasions.

The Handmaid’s Tale is a book that should be printed on gold leaf and fully deserves to be considered the literary classic it is.

5/5 stars

4 comments:

  1. I guess reading a great book after junk, shows :)

    If you want to diversify to non-genre try The Blind Assasin which got the Booker and is arguably the author;'s best - has a loose sf-nal connection with a pulp novel one of the main characters is writing and sharing with his secret lover, kind of like a book in a book.

    On the Handmaid side, i strongly recommend Sarah Hall Daughters of the North which is similar but angrier, way angrier...

    I was not that enamored by Oryx and Crake but loved Year of the Flood, basically because of the characters which i disliked in the first and loved in the second - the action is more or less parallel and Year Flood ends 1 page after Oryx and Crake (that one ends of a sort of cliffhanger, YoF just clears that)

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  2. Liviu, I agree. After reading crap, The Handmaid's Tale was an amazing change of pace.

    Thanks for the recommendations. I'm going to look 'em up and see if I can hunt any of them down at the library.

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  3. Shame that Atwood is a snob about genre fiction. She's actually annoyed me so much that I won't read her books. I suspect she loses a lot of sleep over this (on her bed of awards & royalty checks).

    (I was also really impressed by Handmaid's Tale. BUT I WON'T ADMIT IT.)

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  4. I took a whole class on Atwood and just Atwood while in college. I can heartily recommend Alias Grace as another excellent (non-genre) read. I also remember Surfacing being somewhat disturbing but still pretty fascinating. Atwood's thoughts on craft and life in her essays (try Wilderness Tips) are pretty interesting too.

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