Plot: It happened slowly: women’s rights to work, to property, to free movement were taken away one by one. Of Fred describes her life as a handmaid in this new world, responsible from giving a child to the commander she has been assigned to, and her life before everything changed.
This review is based on the audiobook narrated by Claire Danes.
In this novel Atwood describes a world in which women’s autonomy over themselves, their sexuality and especially their reproduction is taken by the state in the name of religion and morality. It is a world I fear when I see politicians attempting to legislate women’s bodies. This and the contemporary setting (actually given that this novel was first published in 1985, the events likely take place long before today) give Atwood’s distopia a terrifying frisson of truth.
The story is told in the first person by a woman who is only identified in relation to the commander who effectively owns her. This unnamed narrator is very unreliable, admittedly so. She often tells us that events did not occur exactly as she has recounted, that she has embellished or misremembered moments in her life. We also learn latter that many of the names she has given us are false ones. Regular readers of my blog may know that I really love an unreliable narrator and it is especially appropriate here, for who remembers or tells things entirely truly in reality? Of Fred speaks to an unknown, even to herself, “you”. This potential you makes her feel less isolated in her confinement for, in her own words, “I tell therefore you are”.
That is just one example of Atwood’s writing: beautiful, subtle and full of meaning. She has a way of making even the greatest horrors sound lovely, which only adds to the discomfort in my mind. She describes suicides as “those other escapes, that you make in yourself with a cutting edge.”
And there are many horrors. I could write an entire thesis on the indignities and the double standards, on the creation of communal guilt through forced collaboration. I could go on for a while and I’m sure many academics have but this is already almost twice the length of my usual reviews. This is a thoughtful and thought provoking book.
The novel ends, interestingly, with a historical analysis (also fictional but which sounds like a lot of academic discourse that I have heard in my day) of the novel to that point, of the Handmaid’s Tale. This allows Atwood to reveal information that the narrator could not know for various reasons. It also gives us another perspective on the distopian society, aside from the subjective and limited one that makes up the bulk of the novel. It also forces us to consider how history will view our actions as a people.
This is an important work of feminist distopian fiction but also an engaging and frightening tale. Well worth reading, or listening to.