The Handmaid’s Tale

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The Handmaid's TaleThe Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
Published: 1985
Narrated by: Claire Danes
Length: 11:00 (311 pages)

As a Canadian bookworm, I really should have gotten to Margaret Atwood years ago. I’ve been a naughty reader, but I’ve now made the first step towards redemption.

I’d been eyeing this audiobook for quite a while now, and it’s been long enough since watching any Homeland that I thought I could listen to Claire Danes narrate this without my mind drifting to Carrie Mathison’s awful life choices or Mandy Patinkin’s beard. I’m happy I picked up this version, because her narration was terrific.

I know why there is no glass, in front of the watercolor picture of blue irises, and why the window opens only partly and why the glass in it is shatter-proof. It isn’t running away they’re afraid of. We wouldn’t get far. It’s those other escapes, the ones you can open in yourself, given a cutting edge.

This novel is a look into a dystopian future where the United States government has been overthrown by Christian fundamentalists and women have been stripped of their rights and dignity. They were cut off from their bank accounts and their jobs, and they exist only to serve men and birth children. They wear robes and cover their faces, they avoid eye contact and interaction with men, they are no longer permitted to read or write, and they live in perpetual fear. Opposing any of this is seen as blasphemy.

We follow Offred (as in, belonging to Fred) as she performs her duties of being a handmaid, which is a surrogate for the child of a commander if his wife is unable to have children. Her worth is decided purely on her ability to provide a child, so every month she prays that it happens. Her old life, and her journey to this stage, is shown in flashbacks throughout the story.

What struck me while reading this was how possible it all felt, that it was so outlandish but at the same time never felt like an impossibility. I realized after finishing that this is exactly how Malala described the actions of the Taliban when they moved in to occupy Pakistan – take a highly pious community, use their religion and fear to manipulate them, and keep them uneducated.

I wait. I compose myself. My self is a thing I must now compose, as one composes a speech. What I must present is a made thing, not something born.

I really loved this. Atwood spends a lot of time gradually explaining the state of this world. As much time, if not more, as she spends telling Offred’s story, but I was still completely transfixed. She did such a great job of setting a solemn tone and placing the reader in this desperate atmosphere, and it was so easy to get absorbed in the writing. In a less capable writer’s hands, the pace of the novel would be an issue, but I found this to be a pleasure to read.

I’m quite excited to read more from Atwood. I love how she plays with the language, yet is still very direct and meaningful in what she writes. I own a selection of shorts by her, Good Bones and Simple Murders, so I’ll likely start with that.

6 thoughts on “The Handmaid’s Tale

  1. Lady Disdain

    Yes, I couldn’t help noticing the effect of the pace when I first read this, too. It really immerses you, almost so that you have to go at the pace that the narrative commands you (which isn’t that speedy) and yet you find that the pervasive tension of the novel ensures that you don’t feel like there’s a lull at all. It’s such a great novel. Like, I /hate/ it – it’s so bleak, and yeah, I just hate the story, but it’s still great. I love Atwood. I’m glad you got to read this and enjoy it so much.

    1. Rob Post author

      Me too, she’s one of those authors I just never got around to, but that just means I still get to read her other books for the first time, so that’s not too bad.

  2. Geoff W

    Atwood is the Queen of speculative fiction. I would definitely recommend the MaddAddam Trilogy. It’s even scarier than this when it comes to what could happen next.

  3. james b chester

    Hurrah for another convert. When I read this one the first time, I thought of the Amish quilt exhibition that was on display at the local art museum at the time. We really don’t have reach all the way to the Taliban, this one hits much closer to home.

    BTW. I hated Orynx and Craik. It’s very popular but I think Alias Grace and The Blind Assassin are where you should go next. Her more recent stuff hasn’t been as good, in my opinion.

    1. Rob Post author

      That’s very true. Using someone’s religion in a manipulative way to gain power is certainly not a new or foreign concept, and it’s frightening how simply it can work.

      Thanks for the recommendations! I’ll keep an eye out for both of those. I’m oddly unfamiliar with her fiction, but I have heard good things about The Blind Assassin.


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