Book Review: The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

TL;DR – dystopian, speculative fiction about a world where freedoms have been overrun and women have lost all rights including the control of their own bodies. A disturbing look into a society that has lost all its humanity.

Summary

The Republic of Gilead (RoG) is a patriarchal, military dictatorship that has taken control of the United States. Set in a time where environmental pollution has caused the bulk of the female population to become infertile, the RoG restructures society based on extremist interpretations of the Old Testament, which results in human rights (especially those for women) being restricted or removed entirely.

The Handmaid’s Tale tells the story of Offred (not her real name) who becomes a ‘handmaid’ with the express purpose of having children for RoG commanders she is assigned to. This is her story, her journey to survive, to find freedom.

Review

What is there to say that has not already been said about The Handmaid’s Tale? Margaret Atwood has created a work that will likely stand the test of time and has cemented her as one of the great writers of the 20th century. I will not attempt to dissect all of this story’s messages, symbolism, and commentary on how it reflects on human society today. You can read any number of articles that do deep dives into Atwood’s work and/or you can just watch the TV series. Regardless, it is deserving of all its accolades, awards, and critical acclaim.

Instead, all I will say is what I felt when I read this book and whether I enjoyed it.

It achieves what it intends, a level of realism that disarms you and causes you to fall into a world that makes you think, “This could really happen.” Atwood’s mastery of the language places you deep inside Offred’s mind and you feel all her strengths and weaknesses as if they are your own. Atwood flourishes details as viewed from Offred in ways that hits close to home (or too close to home as it may be).

It is a world full of fear, where even those in power (i.e. the Commanders and, to a lesser degree, the Commanders’ wives) are also under the microscope for any signs of going against the established doctrine and system. For example, the Commander that Offred is assigned to invites her in to play Scrabble and gives her magazines to read. This would be seen as an act of treason. Offred is merely a vessel, whose sole purpose is to be impregnated. She is not meant to be seen as a human being with her own thoughts and intellect.

Every interaction and emotion described in this book demonstrates Offred’s humanity in an inhumane world. The fact Offred is able to see this humanity even in her captors demonstrates Atwood’s ability to create a world that is real and far from black and white. Disturbing and horrifying in parts mixed with moments of genuine tenderness and hope creates a roller coaster ride where I found myself having to reach the end.

But did I enjoy it? In short, no.

It is a brilliant piece of work, no doubt about it. Yet, ‘enjoyable’ is the last word I would use to describe it. Why? Because it is a dystopia that focuses on the very worst that we can become. Remember, how I said it can hit too close to home? I see enough dystopian behaviour on the news, in social media, and in day-to-day reality that I do not need to immerse myself in it through a story.

However, is it worth reading? In short, yes. It is worth reading because of how effecting it is and how it leaves impressions and thoughts that will make you ponder long after the last page is read.

But enjoyable, no, and as an avid reader that counts for a lot in my books.

2.5 out of 5.

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