I am a huge fan of dystopian fiction. But, unlike during the time when I first discovered the genre, I tend not to read every dystopian book I can get my hands on. I am much more choosy these days. I tend to prefer dystopian novels written during the height of genre – from the 1950s through the 1980s. The novel 1984 is one of my favorites. The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood has been on my radar for quite some time, but I never picked it up until now. I am glad that I can now say that I’ve read it – this was certainly quite the book.
Obviously this book is set in a dystopian world. How far it is into the future is unknown. The story is told through a handmaid’s memories as she is forced to serve a commander and his wife as a glorified concubine. The society she lives in is one that has supposedly “returned to traditional (aka, biblical) values.” The women – even the privileged wives – live in extreme oppression. They are not permitted to read, must hide their bodies, and the handmaids wear large bonnets that act as blinders that cover their faces from those around them. Throughout the book, the handmaid fights her own fading memories as she tries to recall life before, her husband’s face, and what happened to her little girl. Her flashbacks also include memories from “The Red Center,” where she and other handmaids were “trained” for their duties. The society in the story is characterized by religious extremism and twisting Scripture for their own purposes. The handmaids are hurt the most through this extremism, having the least amount of independence but the most amount of responsibility. Each month, they endure intercourse with the master of the home they are assigned to, with the intent for them to carry the master’s child in place of his barren wife. The most praiseworthy of handmaids successfully conceive and carry children to term.
Margaret Atwood weaves a captivating and interesting story. She shows the effects that religious extremism and blatant misuse of Scripture can have on society. In some aspects, I disagree with her view of what constitutes harmful beliefs in society. As a Christian, I believe that premarital sex, abortion, and practicing homosexuality are all sins. However, the beating and killing and extreme actions in attempts to harshly “cleanse” society and fabricate perfection are unbiblical and unhelpful. As seen in The Handmaid’s Tale.
While Atwood writes an interesting story that serves as a warning against the religious extremism found in her story. However, maybe it was because I read it as an audiobook, but the switches between present time, the handmaid’s memories of the time before, and her memories at the Red Center were sometimes confusing. It took me a few chapters to realize she was switching through three separate periods of time and not just two. You find out in bits and pieces how the handmaid goes from having a job, husband, and child and living in a normal society to being a handmaid. However, you learn a lot without learning very much at all. Society in the time before and the changes leading up to the present are all very obscure. I think this may have been intentional – the story is told through the handmaid’s thoughts. She frequently struggles to remember “the time before,” and there are moments when details she should know well are lost to her. Either way, it makes things frustrating for the reader.
Overall, I give The Handmaid’s Tale 3/5 stars.
Although it is an interesting (albeit, frustrating) story, Atwood’s novel sings the same tune most dystopian novels do. In the light of extremism, most are oppressed and few prosper. Everyone is in a trance, forgetting what was before or thinking it a lesser time, and only a few are aware and attempt to break free. Some are successful, some are less fortunate. Thus, my rating should be viewed as the book is “average and meets dystopian novel standards.” While a good read and one that any dystopian fan will enjoy, not many dystopian novels rise from averageness to excellence. This was not one of them.
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