Margaret Atwood‘s The Handmaid’s Tale is feminist dystopian satire. It was sort of a box-tick read, but it was very good, and well-written, and I’m glad I read it and I never ever want to read it again. In slightly-future America, now a fascist misogynist theocracy called Gilead, Offred (but June, really) is a Handmaid. This means that she has viable ovaries, and is responsible for producing babies. Once a month she has sex with the Commander to whom she belongs, and her life is sharply circumscribed – she can’t read, can’t walk in public by herself, can’t talk to other men.
The book is not a straightforward narration of events – what fun would that be, for a Bad Future America? June’s narration tilts between times, the present and the past and the little she can imagine of her future. We gradually begin to get a picture of June’s life as a Handmaid – dancing around forbidden subjects with fellow Handmaids and other members of the household, trying to navigate changing relationships with the Commander and his Wife, who used to be an awful Phyllis Schafly person in the time before Gilead became a fascist theocracy. And June talks about her life before, her husband and daughter, and the events that led up to where she is now, including her time in a women’s indoctrination school.
The Handmaid’s Tale made me feel upset – or, actually, as I have been rigorously trained not to say that anything makes me feel anything, I felt upset when I was reading The Handmaid’s Tale. Obviously that’s the point! I just don’t think I’m going to read it again. She just makes it seem so viable – they draw a comparison with Iran, and I’ve been reading about Iran, and it’s scary. Like, June talks about the speed with which she has adapted to her new life: it’s been only a few years, but already she is shocked to see the clothes on women from other countries, skirts to the knee, and lipstick. I don’t know – June’s life has become so small, even from what it was at the indoctrination school. Upsetting.
Something else that upset me: June tells stories about her friend Moira, a feminist who went to her same college, and who was at June’s same indoctrination school. Moira is brave and rebellious – she swears and gossips and escapes from the school – and June admires this. But still she recognizes that she isn’t as brave as Moira, and she tries to imagine that Moira finds a way to be free. “Moira is right,” she says, almost at the end. “I am a wimp.” (I’m not brave either.)
Oh, but (spoilers here!) there was one of those lovely unresolved endings that I like so much. I like these because then things always end happily. In my mind, June escaped and she found Luke and she went through the Phyllis Schafly person to find her daughter, and then she got her daughter back, and they moved to Canada, the true North strong and free (yeah, I know that song), and lived happily ever after. I love it when grim books let you decide what happens in the end.
A bit I liked, about the pre-Gilead days:
There were places you didn’t want to walk, precautions you took that had to do with locks on windows and doors, drawing the curtains, leaving on lights. These things you did like prayers; you did them and you hoped they would save you. And for the most part they did. Or something did; you could tell by the fact that you were still alive.
And this, from one of the women who indocrinates June.
There is more than one kind of freedom, said Aunt Lydia. Freedom to and freedom from. In the days of anarchy, it was freedom to. Now you are being given freedom from. Don’t underrate it….We seemed to be able to choose, [in the old days]. We were a society dying, said Aunt Lydia, of too much choice.
The newspaper stories were like dreams to us, bad dreams dreamt by others. How awful, we would say, and they were, but they were awful without being believable. They were too melodramatic, they had a dimension that was not the dimension of our lives.
We were the people who were not in the papers. We lived in the blank white spaces at the edges of print. It gave us more freedom.
We lived in the gaps between the stories.
I want to read more Margaret Atwood. I love how she writes. I only didn’t give this five stars because it gave me a nightmare. Dammit. Without even being true!
Other reviews: Book Nut, The Book Lady’s Blog, The Luscious Literary Muse, Books for Breakfast, The Bluestocking Society, Books and Other Stuff, Violet Crush, It’s All About Me, read warbler, things mean a lot, Valentina’s Room, Reading Reflections, In Spring It Is the Dawn, A Guy’s Moleskine Notebook, Rebecca Reads, Boston Bibliophile, and let me know if I missed yours!