Book Review — The Handmaid’s Tale (1985) by Margaret Atwood

This review is part of the No Man’s Land Reading Project, an attempt to right a gendered imbalance in my reading and a general imbalance in the availability of reviews (by men, especially) of works by female authors.

When I first read Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own (1929) in 2014, I put it down feeling that I’d been done a disservice. Not by Woolf – her extended essay on the ostracism of women from academic and literary society is practically flawless, the definition of essential reading. No, I felt wronged by every teacher who had neglected to put A Room of One’s Own in front of me (or every curriculum that had prevented them from doing so), elevating instead works like Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal (1729), Oscar Wilde’s The Ballad of Reading Gaol (1898) and George Orwell’s Animal Farm (1945) – great works, and important in the same socially aware and morally acute way, but, as coincidence would have it, works by men.

As you might have guessed, I had a similar reaction on finishing The Handmaid’s Tale. As dystopian fiction, it ticks every box: a deceptively simple yet vivid world, a recognisable but ever-so-importantly twisted historical timeline, a resonant and affecting diarist’s style, an engaging and tensely trying plot, and, of course, a whale-sized social issue to tear to shreds through allegory – in this case, the subjugation and devaluation of women by conservative and puritanical doctrines.

How did I do a whole unit studying dystopian fiction (during which everyone re-read Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four for the third time) and not have to reference this even once?

Every truly memorable work of dystopian fiction I’ve read has the qualities exemplified in The Handmaid’s Tale. First, an issue with enormous potential ramifications: manipulation of truth, proliferation of artificial intelligence, erasure of negative emotion, that type of thing. Then, a world around that issue which is built to expose and dissect it, but which is so carefully realised that no tackily under-wrought point-making snaps the reader out of it and into the author’s underlying beliefs. Finally, the humanity of the issue, distilled into three-dimensional characters, such that the heart and mind are simultaneously engaged.

This recipe is surprisingly rarely well executed, and Atwood does it. The Republic of Gilead, in which the handmaid Offred’s tale is set, serves as a perfect parallel for any of a thousand places in England or North America. The nuances of interaction are so perfectly similar to ours that the sense of our world only just left behind permeates the entire novel. Everything gone is not forgotten: alcohol, sex, tobacco, freedom and love linger in every exchange and thought. And in Offred herself, in her voice, the painfully human warring of principle and survival, of desire and self-preservation, are given an at-times almost unbearable humanity.

If there is a weakness in The Handmaid’s Tale, and it is not necessarily one I would have noticed were it not for a friend pointing it out to me, it is that Atwood’s style is a touch bloodless. Certainly Offred is human, but Atwood writes her at one remove. So though you end up wanting Offred to escape, and are moved by the delicately captured poignancy of her experiences, it is not the kind of love for a character that comes of an author putting their heart on the line. Atwood seems almost to look at the tale as at a plant through a window, observing the narrative rather than nurturing it. (Perhaps this shouldn’t come as a surprise. Atwood was described by her Paris Review interviewer as “incisive“; after reading the interview, that word seems almost generous.)

On the other hand, this quality, this often distant and not wholly human voice Atwood uses, gives The Handmaid’s Tale a chilling edge it might not have had otherwise, bringing a pale horror to the reality of the narrator’s lived experience.

She was snipping off the seed pods with a pair of shears. I watched her sideways as I went past, with my basket of oranges and lamb chops. She was aiming, positioning the blades of the shears, then cutting with a convulsive jerk of the hands. Was it the arthritis, creeping up? Or some blitzkrieg, some kamikaze, committed on the swelling genitalia of the flowers? The fruiting body … Saint Serena, on her knees, doing penance. I often amused myself this way, with small mean-minded bitter jokes about her; but not for long. It doesn’t do to linger, watching Serena Joy, from behind. What I coveted was the shears.

While not immediate and red-blooded, The Handmaid’s Tale is restrained and contained in very much the same way as its narrator. Like her, it is attempting to suck fresh air through cold brick walls, and like its author, it is incisive. In breathing just deeply enough, and in measuring every breath, it is a masterwork of dystopian fiction, and, in fact, of fiction generally.

The No Man’s Land Reading Project so far:
#1: We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves (2013) by Karen Joy Fowler
#2: Cranford (1853) by Elizabeth Gaskell
#3: The Compass Rose (1982) by Ursula K. Le Guin
#4: Housekeeping (1980) by Marilynne Robinson
#5: The Tall Man (2008) by Chloe Hooper
#6 The Watch Tower (1966) by Elizabeth Harrower
#7 The Autograph Man (2002) by Zadie Smith

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