The Handmaid’s Tale

My book club’s November book is The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood. Despite being what I would consider “average length” for a novel, it took me less than two weeks to read, which says something of how easy it was to read, and how much of a page-turner it was (and also how much time I purposely dedicated to reading it because I was afraid I wasn’t going to finish it before the book club meeting…)

I’d seen ads for the TV series before — ages ago — and I’d heard of the book, so I must have had some basic idea of what it was about, but, realistically, I went into it not knowing much more than whatever brief description was given in the blurb. For anyone likewise unfamiliar with the story, it’s basically a dystopian sci-fi novel in which certain women are chosen as “handmaids” for rich, high-status couples. The whole purpose of these handmaids is to produce offspring for the couple they have been assigned to.

I think I have read enough novels written in weird, non-traditional ways that I knew from the outset that The Handmaid’s Tale was the kind of book that would get some readers offside just because of how it’s written, not even because of the content. I suppose that is the risk the author takes when deciding what writing style to use. Maybe, though, it wasn’t so much a decision as it was just something that felt right.

Anyway, there are a lot of fragmentary sentences, a lot of speech intermingled with narrative without the distinction of quotation marks, a lot of random flashbacks and timeline jumps.

These are the kinds of things that can make a novel harder to read, harder to follow, but I thought these literary techniques suited The Handmaid’s Tale really well, and didn’t hinder the flow much, if at all. There are hints throughout the novel that the protagonist and narrator, Offred, is remembering and recording the tale at some point in the future, so the erratic nature of the text is what you’d expect from someone who had gone through such trauma, and perhaps is still experiencing some difficulty — perhaps mentally, emotionally, physically, or with regard to personal safety.

The other thing about The Handmaid’s Tale that seems to have disgruntled some readers (if the reviews on GoodReads is anything to go by) is the piecemeal revealing of information. I remember seeing a review in which someone said they would’ve really struggled to follow what was going on if they hadn’t already seen the TV series. And, yes, there is not a whole lot of explanation at the start of the novel, and you kind of have to figure it out as you go, but that’s part of the fun and intrigue, right?

If anything, I think the story flowed a lot better because there weren’t any extensive explanations (or “info dumps”) at any one point in the book. Instead, you are gradually given the facts, and sometimes you have to make the links yourself, but at no point did I have to stop reading because things didn’t make sense. It didn’t matter to me that the context was not fully elucidated at the start. I thought it was clever how Atwood randomly revealed Offred’s past, so that the puzzle of how she came to be a handmaid was slowly pieced together.

The other interesting thing about this novel is that the protagonist doesn’t really do anything noteworthy. She is essentially just a means by which a story is told, so that we may learn what life was like in her time. There are no bold heroics, no daring subterfuge, no incendiary rebellion — not from Offred anyway. There are even various points in the book where she laments her cowardice and passivity, which becomes starker when contrasted with the audacity of her friend Moira and even her own mother.

While I was reading The Handmaid’s Tale, it actually didn’t occur to me that these qualities might make her detestable to other readers. It’s only now that I’ve thought of it, but that doesn’t mean I’ve changed my mind about it. If anything, the conditions of her life as a handmaid are so horrendously torturous that it’s hard to feel anything other than pity and empathy.

Anyway, overall, this book was intriguing and compelling enough that I’d be interested in reading the sequel (whether or not I get around to it is another matter). For the reasons explored above, and just because of what the book is about, it’s not one that I would recommend to everyone; but if you’re looking for something a bit more challenging, or something thought-provoking, it’s pretty good for that.

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