The Handmaid's Tale

The Handmaid's Tale
Margaret Atwood, 1985

I need a hug now.

All I can say is Wow. Amazing. Breathtaking. Setting new standards for the word “wow.” They weren't kidding about the whole “instant classic” thing.

But it's definitely depressing. I read this book over two days, and on the night in between I had nightmares.

Premise: In a future spun off from the rising conservatism and backlash against feminism in the 1980's, human fertility is very low, and social unrest is very high. One conservative group has taken over the government, set up their own compounds, and upended American life. The narrator of this story, called Offred, is a Handmaid, a kind of limited concubine, who is assigned to a high-ranking figure because she is fertile, and his wife isn't. Her husband was taken from her. It was his second marriage, so they said it didn't count. Her daughter was taken from her. She herself was sent to a facility where they attempted to brainwash her. This is her account of a few months of her life.

I loved the structure of the narrative, although I never quite got used to the fact that quotation marks were used only sporadically. The narrator tells you her story as it occurs to her. She relates her day-to-day life, interspersed with things she remembers as she goes. Slowly the picture of her world is built, in fragments crystallizing one by one.

I don't even know what to say here. I'm still digesting the book. She never tells you her name. Some readers have guessed possibilities, but she never tells you. She is herself, and anyone.

Probably the most affecting scene for me (besides the ending) was during one of the flashbacks, as the narrator is remembering the actual transition, when an extremely conservative religious group overthrows the government in a coup, and then removes all women's agency, quickly, before they can react.
Luke knelt beside me and put his arms around me. I heard, he said, on the car radio, driving home. Don't worry, I'm sure it's temporary.
Did they say why? I said.
He didn't answer that. We'll get though it, he said, hugging me.
You don't know what it's like, I said. I feel as if somebody cut off my feet. I wasn't crying. Also, I couldn't put my arms around him.
It's only a job, he said, trying to soothe me.
I guess you get all my money, I said. And I'm not even dead. I was trying for a joke, but it came out sounding macabre.
Hush, he said. He was still kneeling on the floor. You know I'll always take care of you.
I thought, Already he's starting to patronize me. Then I thought, Already you're starting to get paranoid.
I know, I said. I love you. -pages 205-206

I'm going to read it again, just to absorb it more thoroughly, but first I'm going to spend some time with some more hopeful books.

5 Stars

Read this book.


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