This one’s a resurgent classic. It was first published way back in ’86 and took its place also alongside Orwell’s 1984 as one of the most of the most chilling views of a dystopian state-run future that the literary world had ever seen. And like 1984, The Handmaid’s Tale has found a new audience, as many believe that recently drafted policies by the current US administration mean that perhaps its time has finally come.
The book is set in what I suppose you could call an Alternative Dystopian Now. Birth rates across the United States are in freefall thanks to biological and radioactive pollution, while prenatal birth defects are skyrocketing. Poverty leads to civil unrest which leads to civil war. Part of the country is effectively annexed from the rest of the nation, and within this walled state, the religious right ascends to power.
As you’d expect, the grey-haired men in charge set about dialing things back a couple of centuries: women’s rights are swept away overnight, reducing half the population to little more than property; abortion is banned; homosexuality is outlawed; and a secret police force takes to the streets to ensure that religious law is observed under pain of death. The book details this new state order from the point of view of a Handmaid; one of a large group of women forced into providing surrogate children for the elite. The Handmaid’s are seen as vital to restoring the birth rates, but at the same time they’re despised by the wives of the men they’re forced to breed with.
The genius of this book is that Atwood has set it in the now, rather than some obscure future. This makes everything seem uncomfortably familiar and does give the reader the real sense that this could actually happen – that it might actually be happening now. How would a government go about removing the rights of women almost overnight; well, according to the book, it’s actually quite easy:
The book reminded me of another favourite, Station Eleven: the setup is entirely believable, the characters aren’t heroes (they’re just ordinary people finding that they need to do terrible things in order to survive), and there is a sliver of society who take to the new ways like ducks to water, making life even more miserable for everyone else.
What sets them apart is that The Handmaid’s Tale is told from a single viewpoint, which makes it more intimate, but also gives a much narrower view of what’s going on. You spend the whole time in the main character’s head as she flits between the past and the present in a very literary stream of consciousness; not everyone’s cup of tea, but I think it works very well here. As I said, the prose leans heavily towards the literary end of the market, but Atwood has that rare talent of making this kind of writing approachable. And the tension … good grief! This I found surprising given that there are very few scenes that I’d describe as fast-moving. The book runs pretty evenly from start to finish, but packs in plenty of emotion – mostly fear. You can’t escape this feeling that she’s on borrowed time; and of course she is: handmaid’s are only useful as long as they can bear children.
The scenes of violence are low-key, but very powerful nonetheless (Atwood proving once again that less is more). I’m not sure ‘enjoyable’ is a word I’d use to describe the book, but it is a masterclass in fiction-writing and, make no mistake, a very harrowing read, but what do you expect from a book about state-sponsored rape?
Eight out of ten.