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BOOK REVIEW CORNER SPECIAL: The Handmaid’s Tale

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May 28, 2017 by heligena


Hey hey party people.  With the first episode of The Handmaid’s Tale showing tonight courtesy of the wonderful Channel 4, we’ve been raiding our archives again to find our original review of the book back when we first read it.

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This one comes to you direct from the summer of 2001, a simpler world, when we studied the books as part of Twentieth Century Feminist Literature at good old Uni, so we should start by giving props to our course co-ordinator for being ahead of her time with this Canadian literary choice.   As a fan of the novel, we’ve got high hopes for the series, not just for its overwhelmingly positive critical reception but also for its casting nouse and incredible looking production values.  But only time will tell on these things.

Anyway here’s what we thought when we first stumbled across The Handmaid’s Tale.

Let us know if you felt the same….

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JUNE 2001:

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

This was a tough sell at first glance.  Not for its concept (which is equal parts horrifying and mesmerising) or for its author (Marg is a living legend y’all.)  But because it contains two stylistic traits that I have always disliked- a first person narrative and an overwhelmingly passive female narrator.  Having always found first person points of view either self-centred and/or irritating, that did make me hesitate in reading this, I’m not going to lie.  And the addition of such a benign protagonist just intensified that sense of reluctance.

We were always taught that a narrator who speaks directly to you, has to be one of two things- relatable or likeable.  If they aren’t we were told, then the reader won’t connect with them, will feel for the most part like they are being lectured.  Like they are being talked at, not to.  In regards to that idea, I’m not entirely sure which camp Offred belongs to actually.  She has a dash of likeability underneath her inaction but it’s certainly not enough to be truly amiable or admirable.  And her relatability, microscopic rebellions aside, is tenuous at best.  She’s an oddity really, which I suppose is exactly what made her perfect fodder for our syllabus.

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Leaving characters flaws alone for a moment, this is a powerhouse of a novel no question though. 

It’s brutal.  Prescient.

And its oppressive, stultifying atmosphere is crafted with absolute and horrifying precision.

As a fan of etymology, Atwood’s digressions and Offred’s fascinations with wordplay are also an absolute intellectual treat although I’m sure some will find them distracting; or worse, elitist.

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You have to give the author kudos too for employing an impressionistic, stream-of-consciousness style in this novel.  Are the incomplete recollections and vague intuitions of the main character maddening?  You bet your ass they are.  They are in fact, not just frustrating, they are actively discouraging and they prick at your skin every time your brain screams for more- more solid information, more reveals.  But therein lies their power boys and girls- they put us, the reader unapologetically in the main character’s (Hell, any character’s) place, offering tantalising glimpses of a bigger picture without ever fully relieving their/our curiosity.  That narrative technique piecemeal as it is, mirrors the fragmented nature of human memory, mirrors its cast’s sense of incompleteness.  And while that may be frustrating on a cellular level, it is also a master stroke of literary style.  Because just like Offred we find ourselves waiting eagerly for tales of Moira, of Offred’s mother, of Luke even- for tales of daring in amongst a sea of routine and tiny micro-aggressions.  We want riots, we want danger just like Offred but all we get are moments.  Brief sensations.  And most of those have in-built reliability issues- are questionably true at best.  We wade through the pages, as our Handmaid wades through the hours on the clock.

To be fair, a consequence of this narrative decision is undoubtedly that The Handmaid’s Tale is not an easy read.  Or even an enjoyable one in the usual sense of the world.  I’m sure many will struggle with it or even give up on the book before the end.  I can understand why.

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However, while it’s not an easy read it is an IMPORTANT one guys, not just for the fact that every stylistic and authorial decision is so self-assured, so carefully thought out.  It is important for its warnings about theocratic thinking.  Its warnings on patriarchal rule and the natural slide between democracy and dictatorship.  This may be classified as Dystopian Fiction but there’s a sense underneath everything here, that this awful scenario could all too easily happen given political trends recently.  This novel then, is a silent alarm.  A cautionary account, like all good fairy tales.  And if a world made entirely of emptiness and disillusionment like the one Attwood conveys so perfectly is a possible future for us then we need to do something about that.  Now.

I’m not talking marches and lawsuits.  I’m talking platforms and social change.  We need to make ourselves heard more than ever.  That’s the duty Margaret Atwood places on us as readers of this book.  And I for one am willing to heed the call.

I think.

CONCLUSION:  Visionary, verbose and very very frightening

MARKS: 8.5 out of 10.

N.B. Oh and if anyone can get through the scene where Offred has to lie on The Commander’s Wife in order to be impregnated (The Ceremony as it’s disaffectionately known) without cringing or closing the book for a second then you have problems, friend.  Goddamn you have problems.

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So, there it is, our thoughts as a somewhat precocious Lit student (sorry about that 😊.)

As we said previously, we’ll all have to wait for tonight to see if the show does the book justice but anyone who wants to get in touch with us with what they thought of the novel or the show once its aired, please do.

We’d love to get your take on this…

Blessed be the fruit…

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