by MARGARET ATWOOD
This book is spookily close to real life. And then also, not at all.
I finally read it. I’ve had Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale on my shelf for more than a year, and nothing but the best intentions as to reading it. If, between books, someone had pointed it out, slowly gathering dust on my shelves, I would have said, “My gosh, I’d forgotten that book! That’ll be my next one!”
This is the tragedy of my room. There are getting to be so many of these books that occasionally I forget about the really great ones sitting on my shelves waiting to be read.
This winter I remedied this (I hope) by creating a to-read shelf. Not just a computerized one on goodreads.com, but an actual physical to-read shelf. And that is how I rediscovered The Handmaid’s Tale.
Full disclosure: if you’ll remember, I am a loyal fan of Atwood’s and have already reviewed her more recent book, The Year of the Flood. So coming into this book, I have the highest expectations and a little bias, it’s true.
The Handmaid’s Tale tells the story of a young woman who has lived through a coup of the US government. The newly formed country of Gilead has based much of its social customs from the Biblical story of Rachel and Jacob (referenced at the beginning of the book as Genesis 30:1-3). Only married relationships are sanctioned (and only first marriages). If a woman (and it is always the woman) is found to be barren, a Handmaid is called upon to bear children in the wife’s place.
Children seem to be the central goal of the society, apart from snuffing out any passionately sexual activity or intimacy. In her stifled society, the Handmaid, called Offred (though we don’t know her true name), struggles against Gilead’s doctrine and grasps at her fading memories of the time when women had rights, property, and control over their own bodies.
Women in The Handmaid’s Tale are, in fact, strikingly similar to those of fundamentalist Islamic religions. They wear clothes that cover nearly all parts of their bodies to the point that they cannot even see more than directly in front of them (much like the burqa). They are not allowed to own money or property, and only the testimony of two women can serve as evidence in a court of law. But this is what makes the story so compelling: there are so many real-world parallels to this book that, though it is obviously divorced from our own reality, it doesn’t seem impossible or even unreasonable to believe that this is the world we could be living in.
It becomes clear through reading the book Offred finds herself in this world after a disaster (the assassination of all members of Congress) leads for many of then-America’s freedoms to be revoked, supposedly as a means to supposedly find those responsible. Sounding a little like 9-11 and the Patriot Act? It did to me, too. Yet this book is copyrighted 1986, a decade and a half before 9-11. Uncanny.
Obviously, Atwood’s world is one wherein the danger of government control is driven to an extreme, and we’re not likely to find ourselves wearing winged caps and floor-length dresses anytime soon (unless that’s just how you roll). But it does make for a terribly interesting read.