I just finished reading the The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood – an author I’ve been wanting to for way too long.
It’s funny that I’d pick this novel out of the several that she has written exactly two months after I finished reading Never Let me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro – both dystopian in nature. They’re similar in so many ways, I couldn’t help but notice! But more about that later.
“It means you can’t cheat Nature,” he says. “Nature demands variety, for men. It stands to reason, it’s part of the procreational strategy. It’s Nature’s plan.” I don’t say anything so he goes on. “Women know that instinctively. Why did they buy so many different clothes, in the old days? To trick the men into thinking they were several different women. A new one each day.”
Getting back to this one: The Handmaid’s Tale, to put it simply, is a
woman’s account of a world that does not allow for the autonomy of women. A world where women are merely reproductive in nature. The woman, Offred (literally called Of Fred), is stuck being a Handmaid in a household where her only job is abstinence in order keep her body healthy for the purpose of conceiving and regularly attending the “ceremony” where she is expected to copulate every month with the Commander of the house in presence of the Wife whose only job is to knit in hope of babies she can cradle one day, that is, if she is lucky enough.
It’s her journey, from being married with a daughter to her new life where she is forced to quietly use butter as a substitute for body lotion. Her constant fear is not of dying but of being an “unwoman” until the day she is offered a temporary escapade and like many before her, she falls for it.
In my limited dystopian reading, I found this one to be more realistic than the others. It is set in near future and the austere regime in question seems to be a concentration of all the orthodox, un-feminist mentalities currently existing all over the world. It’s actually not that difficult to believe when rape is described as a monthly ceremonial act or when a woman is given zilch rights over her own body because of how important it is for the survival of mankind. Often while reading I felt like Atwood was basically just describing today’s world in a more absurd way (pfft, like that was possible) but of course, that’s not true.
Despite being slow in pace, ridiculously slow actually, it covers a plethora of themes – most of them being underlying. Pretty sure I missed out on a few elements while reading because of how much attention the plot itself demands. The first hundred pages or so kind of sucked the life out of me. I didn’t feel like it was going anywhere. But that was only because Atwood was giving us a clear background of what’s actually going on. Without that information, one would never be able to soak the essence of the story.
The first person narrative is a perfect reflection of the protagonists struggle to crave a past she can’t quite recall anymore. It is, at times, unnerving, I will not lie. She shifts between the past and present very smoothly; in fact, I had to read certain paragraphs twice just to pinpoint where exactly the transition took place. However this has its downfall too – it cannot be read while you’re travelling on a busy local train. I learnt that the hard way. The protagonist has so many layers to herself – by virtue of being two different people: one of the past (whose name we do not know or maybe I can’t remember right now) and the second is Offred of the present – that it sometimes gets a little tiring trying to cope with the flow of the novel. But if once you’re into it, which for me was after the first hundred pages, it’s a real page-turner!
So if you’re going to pick this one up at your local bookstore, try not to give up 😀