There is possibly no better way to start this blog off than to review a book of this caliber. I’m going to be upfront and tell you guys that I have been a fan of Margret Atwood’s writing for quite some time. Her first novel “Surfacing” was quite the revelation for me. As a student of literature, I couldn’t help but notice writing styles and narrative techniques but the particular way in which Atwood could immerse you in a world and simultaneously make you doubt everything you think you know was something I had not encountered till then.
I can’t claim to be objective about the book because I came in with such high expectations but I’ll try to be as concise as possible to give you an idea of what the novel does and how it does it.
To start off with, the story. The novel is set somewhere in the future. Atwood’s self-ascribed genre of Speculative fiction is very apparent here as she effortlessly creates a world so horrific but so plausible that the experience of reading the novel can be, on a whole, unsettling.
It’s set in an unspecified state in future North America where a fundamentalist right-wing movement has overtaken the government and has imposed biblical law on the people. Women have had their rights taken away and are seen as nothing more than servants and literal baby making machines. They are also classified into different branches, the Wives, Econowives, the Marthas and finally the Handmaids. The protagonist of the story happens to be one of the handmaids, a sect formed of women who are still fertile after a unspecified contamination caused by pollution made most men sterile and most women infertile or capable of producing only warped babies.
Women are almost literally reduced to the level of objects and all of this is neatly justified through the use of religious propaganda. All this in itself would make for a compelling novel but the ways in which Atwood exposes the formation of this society and the simple processes through which it is done that the writer really reveals her understanding of society.
Another key aspect of the novel is its protagonist, Offred. As the ideology of the book demands, Offred is far from heroic. She is routinely shown to be fallible and in some cases weak spirited but this is just another method through which Atwood portrays the bleakness of this world. The character of Moira who is the most heroic character in the novel is not made the protagonist as if to imply that there is no room for heroes in this dystopia. There is no real hope of freedom or rebellion and the scared, abstract and ambivalent nature of Offred is the embodiment of this.
On the writing front, Atwood uses many of the techniques she is known for but to great effect. The story is told retrospectively from he the perspective of Offred and this fact is made obvious by her recurrent interjections that establish the events depicted as a reconstruction or a plain fabrication that she makes in order to keep herself sane. The effect of this is that the reader is never secure in their understanding of the world, they are never allowed to be lulled into the narrative and are made to be constantly critical.
The epilogue in particular acts as a reality check so that the reader has to step back from the book and reexamine what they think has happened.
Overall the plot is gripping and is delivered brilliantly through Atwood’s mastery of her style which allows her to meld complex and hard to grasp ideas with a popular style that makes her books page-turners.
I don’t want to give too much away from the book so I won’t say anymore on the story except to mention how significant this novel is in today’s age. It was relevant when it was written and decades from then it still carries as much weight (ref: Trump) a fact emphasized by the current Hulu adaptation’s creation and success. There isn’t much to criticize in the book though I have tried.
The only point of contention I could find would be the topic itself. I have heard of some people calling the novel oppression porn and I’m sure a great number of people think its liberal claptrap demonizing the religious, but in this case, I feel as those people have missed the point of the novel.
The novel is at its core about fascism and how it affects those who are vulnerable. All fascism seems attractive to certain groups for some reasons but to have that they have to sacrifice the rights, the personhood of entire segments of society. Atwood in her novel illustrates this beautifully and brutally.
I could not recommend this enough. If you have time and don’t run in fear of what might be an oppositional idea then this is the book for you.
Rating: 4.5 stars