Review: The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

​​”Nolite te bastardes carborundorum”

Genre: Dystopian fiction, feminist fiction

Similar to: Obviously this is the original but Naomi Alderman’s The Power.

Could be enjoyed by: Everyone. This is a really important book to read.

Publication date: Unbelievably, way back in 1985

I’ve kind-of-unintentionally been reading a lot of feminist dystopian fiction recently so I thought it was only right that I should go back and read the original novel that kick-started the who sub-genre; The Handmaid’s Tale. Plus it pops up on literally every top 100 books ever and I felt really bad that as someone who identifies as a feminist I hadn’t actually read it. I’ll have to think of a new “I’m a feminist but ..”

The novel depicts a terrifying future where the world has been plagued by disaster. The rise of ultra-conservative far-right politics has attempted to provide salvation and increase the dangerously low birth rate by introducing a new world order. Women beyond child bearing age are employed as “Marthas”, domestic servants for the political leaders.”Handmaids” are women who can, in theory, have children (having already given birth – although their children have been taken away) and are used to breed with the powerful men – like a one-woman harem living under their roof. The wives of the powerful men have been left to be housewives, banned from having their own jobs or income. Anyone disagreeing with the ultra strict rules is either hung, tortured or sent to the colonies; the radioactive wastelands where they will work, suffer and die. In that order.

It is truly frightening how prescient this novel is. I see wacko Trump supporters with their misogynistic rhetoric, their thirst for power and the slow erosion of women’s rights and I think – is this where we’re headed? Is the Handmaid’s Tale a vision of the future? For that reason alone, I think this is an incredibly important book.

I loved the unnamed narrator (her name is only June in the TV series) and I was really rooting for her to fight back. I liked that she wasn’t some kind of mastermind freedom fighter but a terrified ordinary person who sometimes made mistakes and bad choices – it made her far more authentic and I could see myself making those same errors of judgement if I was in her shoes. 

I loved the examples of female friendship, both in the time before and during her resistance to the regime and how it was a network of women who were working to free themselves from the situation they found themselves in. There were so many examples of bravery and defiance from various different female characters and I enjoyed reading them all – from the subtle to the overt to the downright suicidal. 

Throughout the novel, questions of morality, religion and the role of women were repeatedly asked. I thought it was so clever that Atwood made extreme situations almost plausible and I loved how it seemed like none of the characters were fully bought in to the ideology – they certainly weren’t happy – and yet there was no collective challenge to the regime. She showed how utterly effective fear can be in controlling a population – even if they then have to do the most unthinkable things and a brilliant illustration of power and privilege – the more power you had, the less you had to play by the rules. I thoroughly enjoyed the way that Atwood presented these ideas without seeming judgemental or forcing her own perspective on the reader. Needless to say, the writing was brilliant throughout and I whizzed through the book in a couple of days.

I know a lot of people have criticised the ending of the novel but I liked that it finished on a cliffhanger, with the ambiguous outcome suggestend through someone piecing together historical fragments years later. In that way, Atwood kind of let you choose your own ending and I felt like there was a moral in this too – as if she was pointing out that this extreme situation could absolutely happen (and in certain parts of the world, already has) so we have a choice, right now, whether to ignore the slippery slope of casual misogyny, homophobia, racism, ableism etc. or fight against it. 

Overall, I loved The Handmaid’s Tale and I’d urge everyone to read it. It’s a gripping read, very well written and a chilling reminder that we must stand up for what we believe in before it’s too late. 

Rating: 🌟Five “Under his eye” out of five 🌟

Prescient, important and morally terrifying, this is an incredible novel and a horrifying example of what probably started as “locker room talk”. 

Please note that I read this novel as part of the Book Riot Read Harder Challenge #3 Read a classic of genre fiction.

 

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