Thursday, October 2, 2008
Banned Book Week REVIEW: The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood
First published: 1985. Click on the cover to buy from your local independent Indiebound-affiliated bookstore.
I first read The Handmaid's Tale for Banned Books Week in 2003; I finished it in about a week and it freaked me out.
The plot concerns a young woman called Offred, living in Boston, Massachusetts, whose American society has disintegrated and been rebuilt as the hyper-Christian Republic of Gilead following the violent overthrow of the U.S. government. Her husband has disappeared and she has been forced into sexual slavery as the "handmaid" of a government official. Her only task in life is to give birth to his child and her life depends on her ability to carry out this task. This is her last chance. If she fails, she faces becoming an "unwoman" and being sent to clean nuclear waste. If she succeeds, she gets to live.
Like many Atwood novels, the narrative goes back and forth between the past and the present, or rather several pasts and a singular present that she alludes to only subtly every now and then. It takes getting to the end of the book to find out what her real present tense is, and what exactly the novel is. I won't spoil it.
Also like many Atwood novels, the theme centers on women, sex and power. I can't say I'm surprised that the book was challenged so much, given the sexual content and the extremely unfavorable portrayal of the Christian right-wing. According to Atwood in this novel, what they had in mind in the 1980s is eerily similar to Afghanistan under the Taliban. Women aren't allowed to work, own property, handle money or even learn to read. All they're good for is a functioning uterus.
The Handmaid's Tale was one of the toughest, most powerful books I've ever read. I remember sitting across from friends at my bachelorette party the day after I finished it, shellshocked trying to describe the impact the book had on me. That night my best friend and I went to a bookstore to find a "light read" and I actually bought a copy of a Harry Potter book. Anyone who knows me knows that means I was extremely desperate for something to take my mind off what I'd just finished. It's an amazing book. I don't think I could re-read it but I went on a three-year Margaret Atwood binge as soon as I could keep down heavy books again. She's an incredible writer and The Handmaid's Tale is one of her most powerful books. Wow!