The Handmaid's Tale (Margaret Atwood) - 4/5
I was given this book as a birthday present in July. It's a book I've wanted to read for many years but every time I've picked it up in the bookshop, the first chapter didn't grab me. Upon opening it again after my birthday, I can't say it grabbed me again, which is why I'm glad it was a present and I had an obligation to keep reading! I would never refuse a birthday book!
I'm so glad I persevered. The Handmaid's Tale isn't an easy book. The world takes a while to make sense and even when you think you understand it, you're still left hanging in a strange limbo between what life is like now and how the future is portrayed in the book. The gap between then and now is so vast but at the same time, completely believable. In fact, this book scared me. It scared me that it wouldn't take much to bring down our society now and for something like this to happen.
The Handmaid's Tale (with some spoilers now so don't read this if you want to read the book later) focuses on a woman called Offred. The names comes from the person she is assigned to, a commander, therefore she is 'Of Fred'. Women in the book have assigned roles; some of them are wives with apparent power, some of them are basically maids or cooks, some of them (like Offred) are there for reproduction. What was interesting about Offred was that she remembered what life was like before the new system was put in place, she even had a husband and a child, and this part of her torments her. If she hadn't known any better, she would accept the system. The brainwashing she has been put through works on many levels but with her past, she can't leave it all behind that easily.
Offred does her job and acts as she should for a large portion of the book. There are disturbing parts where Atwood describes the reproduction ritual, basically the commander having sex with Offred while she lies on top of his wife, Serena Joy. It is kind of like a very unerotic threesome and it's not that nice to read or think about. But again, the whole concept isn't that far-fetched in some ways. The system is functional and geared towards creating a better future. Anyone who stands in it's way is hunted, tried publicly, and executed by various means.
What's interesting in this book too is the rebellion. It sneaks up on you in various characters, characters you wouldn't expect sometimes, and other times the most rebellious characters are somehow caged despite of it.
My favourite characters were Offred of course, but also Nick. He seemed to have some compassion which felt sincere, whereas I always thought that the commander was kind of patronising and fake, despite apparently wanting to educate Offred and offer her things she wouldn't usually be allowed. However, there is ambiguity at the end, including over Nick, and although I have my suspicions, I'm still not quite sure what to believe.
A quick note on the writing: I found Atwood's style sparser than I thought I would. The descriptions were good though and I liked how she dealt with the jumps in time and conversations from the past with key characters.
One thing I do know is that this book deserves a read, even if it doesn't draw you in immediately. It's a scary and realistic novel, with a narrator who makes you feel sad and hopeful all at once. I just hope for all of our sakes that Atwood's vision never becomes a reality!