Book Review: 'The Handmaid's Tale' by Margaret Atwood

cover of Margaret Atwood's 'The Handmaid's Tale', showing an abstract painting of a faceless woman wrapped in a red cloak

Reading The Handmaid's Tale has started to feel something of essential. I don't hold with "the canon", those must-read books that everyone with an English degree or even an interest in literature must read, but The Handmaid's Tale has begun to creep into our culture (or, rather, particularly Americans') and comments that compare the current political situation to Gilhead almost mean that to understand contemporary anxieties we must look to a twentieth-century novel that hypothesises upon a frightening future.

I remember trying to read The Handmaid's Tale a few years ago, when I was doing my MA. I had it on Kindle, which I always struggled to read from, but at that time I was taking a half-hour bus twice a week, and getting through it felt like an accomplishment for those journeys. But I never managed it. Now that I've borrowed the paperback from a friend it's a remarkably easy book to get through - in some ways. In others, it's horrifying, where it's necessary to take a break, or to read an extract three or four times to take the full sense of it.

"Things haven't settled down, it's too soon, everyone is unsure about our exact status."

The Handmaid's Tale draws you in immediately with a slow-burning horror, one that the characters themselves have almost become accustomed to and that the reader is gently acclimatised to. "A balcony ran around the room, for the spectators, and I thought I could smell ..." This separation of the spectators in the very first paragraph is already an indication of the separation between the classes of characters: those that do, and those that watch; those who play the game and those who control it. When the narrator explains that "The woman sitting in front of me was Serena Joy. Or had been, once. So it was worse than I thought" we don't know why it's worse, or what exactly this means for her.

The further you read, the easier it becomes to see how people are drawing parallels between this imagined United States and the one currently taking form. "Even if it's false news," the narrator tells us, "it must mean something." Now the idea of "false news" is almost irrevocably tied with the incumbent US president, but it's also a reminder of playground gossip -- that every rumour springs from a seed of truth. The control over sexuality and reproduction are overt, of course, and the woman-blaming that absolves men of responsibility -- "It was my fault. I led them on. I deserved the pain" -- but also the racial aspect: "They blamed it on the Islamic fanatics, at the time." First published in 1985, it's almost alarming how prescient it feels in 2019.

One quote really stood out for me, perhaps because I never liked those "artistic" nudes hung in galleries:

"These pictures were supposed to be erotic and I thought they were, at the time; but I see now what they were really about. They were paintings about suspended animation; about waiting, about subjects not in use. They were paintings about boredom.
But maybe boredom is erotic, when women do it, for men."

These women are always in a state of nudity that didn't seem natural -- as if we would wander like that to enjoy our own nakedness or for others to admire it as we posed. It's always meant as a precursor to sex, or repose afterwards -- a passive enjoyment of the act. Even as a painting it's a way to enjoy looking at the female form without the responsibilities of pleasing it or seeing it as another person. Their languid nudity is the object put aside until it's next to be touched. That is Offred; that is the Handmaids: except even enjoyment has been taken from that, and it's difficult to say which is worse.

Although it focuses on the future, it can't be done without referencing the past it's built on. Killing the cat, for example, is reminiscent of the mothers who smothered their babies during the Nazi liquidation of the Ghettos. There's a scene in The Pianist when a woman is crying at the depot before they are taking to the camps: she smothered the baby so that the SS didn't find them, but they were found anyway. Atwood didn't need to kill the cat -- but it had to be done.

"They had to do it that way, the Compucounts and the jobs both at once. Can you picture the airports, otherwise? They don't want us going anywhere, you can bet on that."

This is the section I read again and again, although I don't know why it should have so much effect. It isn't the most distressing description in the novel; it's not even the first indication that their world has drastically changed; but perhaps it's that first feeling of being trapped. Now (although perhaps not so much with the Brexit situation) there is always the opportunity to leave: to drive, take a train, go to another country. But what if your money was restricted to a bank balance? And what if that bank balance was wiped -- or given over to the control of someone else? The kingdom of Gilhead isn't our own, but being denied that autonomy to get out is perhaps more terrifying than already being sucked in.

"Thank God, I said.
Why, thank God? said Moira.
I thought she was dead.
She might as well be, said Moira. You should wish it for her."

The final pages are so frightening that they made me skin tingle. All of the horrors that Offred and the reader has experienced are played back in a jumble -- but although she has little reason to trust him, it might have been the right thing to do. The ending is deliberately vague, but I think it's optimistic. Maybe I'd just like to think so.

"Here's what I'd like to tell ... But as far as I know that didn't happen. I don't know how she ended, or even if she did, because I never saw her again."
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