Following the publication of The Testaments, (the biggest book release all year), we review the book that first gave us Offred and Gilead – The Handmaid’s Tale.
The Handmaid’s Tale – the blurb
‘I believe in the resistance as I believe there can be no light without shadow; or rather, no shadow unless there is also light.’
Offred is a Handmaid in The Republic of Gilead, a religious totalitarian state in what was formerly known as the United States. She is placed in the household of The Commander, Fred Waterford – her assigned name, Offred, means ‘of Fred’. She has only one function: to breed. If Offred refuses to enter into sexual servitude to repopulate a devastated world, she will be hanged. Yet even a repressive state cannot eradicate hope and desire. As she recalls her pre-revolution life in flashbacks, Offred must navigate through the terrifying landscape of torture and persecution in the present day, and between two men upon which her future hangs.
Never read it
What can I possibly write about The Handmaid’s Tale? Well not much as believe it or not I had never read it. It had by-passed me at school, stayed a consistent ‘somewhere in the middle’ of my to read shelf and, as I hadn’t read it, I avoided it on TV. Yet with all the hype around The Testaments (it was nominated for the Booker Prize (which it went on to win) before anyone had even read it) I felt a rising realisation that The Handmaid’s Tale was a book I needed to have read. I was booked in to see Atwood speak towards the end of last month and decided beforehand that I wasn’t going to go unless I had read it. So I purchased a beautiful copy (hardbacked, red edged) and settled into the 300 odd pages reverenced in reading circles.
Originally published in 1985 I was immediately struck by how very modern the book felt. You could all too easily imagine a world today where a revolution has taken place and women have been reduced to breeding machines. Not allowed to read, only allowed outside whilst accompanied and dressed appropriately. There’s even a reference to plastic and how it’s not used much in Gilead! But it is womans rights at a time I’m most pondering them (following reading The Woman in the Photograph) that most interested me and gave the book a very current feel.
All about Offred
As Offred looks back we slowly discover what happened, to her and to America. Atwood delivers just the right amout of detail to make it believeable without becoming cumbersome. There isn’t endless paragraphs of world building. Instead there is a focus on the mundane, a walk to the shops, a detailed inspection of Offred’s bedroom that highlight the extent Offred’s life has contracted. Interspersed are little ramblings by Offred about falling in love or having a job. Her musings of her past life. I think it was these parts I liked the best, although the plot does expertly snake along until you realise suddenly it’s wrapped around you and is squeezing your last breath.
Is she or isn’t she
Before you know it the page count is less than 50 and you realise we might not get a beautifully packaged, tied with a bow ending for Offred. You hit the point where you want to finish the book, but don’t at the same time! I didn’t expect the Historical Notes but liked the extra element they added to the story. My years of Handmaid dodging had left me ignorant of the full plot and I’m pleased, both of my ignorance and of the ending. It’s an excellent one to study at school, but equally it’s excellent coming to it for the first time in adult life. Stay tuned for my review of The Testaments, it will probably only take me about 12 years to get round to reading it!