The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
Opening sentence: “We slept in what once had been the gymnasium.”
It was one of my 2018 reading goals to read more classics, so I’ve kicked off with a book that’s been on my TBR list for such a long time – The Handmaid’s Tale. It’s sometimes tricky to know where to begin when reviewing iconic books. Before you even start reading, you have an expectation that it’s got to be a great read, right? There has to be a reason it has the status it does? So, when it came to The Handmaid’s Tale, I did have a strong feeling that I would like it. And I did. Although not as much as I thought I would.
Set in the dystopian Republic of Gilead, where women’s fertility has taken a nose-dive and rich couples hire fertile handmaids to bear children for them. Offred (‘Of Fred’ – she is literally property) is the handmaid of the title. She had no choice in her situation, we are given a glimpse into her life before (married, with a daughter and her own free will), which throws into stark reality her depressing circumstances now.
Offred is a prisoner, although she can leave Commander Fred’s house, but only accompanied by another handmaid and only on errands. She has no social or personal life, no right to assert her thoughts or feelings and, of course, her body is no longer hers. She is a vessel for a potential child and must subject herself to the monthly Ceremony where she lies between the legs of the Commander’s wife while he, essentially, rapes her, as she has no choice in what is happening to her. This is a shocking version of a world where women’s rights (or at least the rights of certain women) have been stripped away from them.
As in any good story, there are rebels that are not willing to just accept the injustice happening to them, although, interestingly, I wouldn’t class our lead character as one of them. She has opinions, yes, but her tale is a more over-arching account of life in Gilead.
Atwood has a subtle story-telling style that gradually unveils plot elements, but still leaves you with questions. This works to create intrigue and suspense, but might also be why the ending was not what I was expecting. For a book with such a strong theme, there was just no conclusion to Offred’s tale and personally, as a reader, this was a let-down. I understand that this ending reflects the uncertainty of the handmaid’s future, but a clearer outcome would have made it a more satisfactory read for me.
Despite my feelings on the ending, this is an exceptionally well-written book with a chilling yet powerfully thought-provoking theme that has ingrained itself into my brain.