The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood: book review


This novel is quite extraordinary.  Margaret Atwood, at her best, is a remarkable writer.  But this is perhaps her finest hour.  Her ability to write sci-fi (as in both this novel and in Oryx and Crake) in such a way that it bears comparison to Huxley and Otrwell (as opposed to Asimov and Clarke) AND to write historical period pieces such as Alias Grace and the Robber Bride is, in my experience, unmatched.

Like many of her novels a strong feminist subplot lies at the core, but that should not put male readers off because the writing is so powerful and the ideas, politics (not just sexual) and plotting are so engaging and page-turning.

The novel was written in 1985 and, like 1984 by George Orwell, it could almost have realised itself in this reader’s lifetime.

It is set, nominally, in the mid 21st century in a dystopian society ruled by men in a land called Gilead – but in reality the USA.  (Atwood’s home nation, Canada, has a minor role as a heroic state.)

Following an unnamed “war” and rebellion a male-run fascist state emerges where women become either reproductive breeders and servents or else sent to the “colonies” to clear up nuclear waste, as fodder.

Our heroine, Ofred, is one of these reproductive handmaids and tells her story across the pre- and post-rebellion period reflecting in flashback, throughout the book, on her blissful previous existence and, in the present, on the indignity of her plight.

The detail and plotting of this novel is breathtaking.  All sorts of “inventions” and political outcomes are now (in 2007) realised from what was fantasy at the time of writing.  Her political insights are incredible and her support for feminism unstinting.

This is a sublime novel and I cannot wait to see the movie again.

Do yourself a favour.  Read it.