I can’t believe I hadn’t read this book until now.
The Handmaid’s Tale is on numerous high school and university reading lists and I can absolutely see why. Set in the near future where everyone is divided into specialized categories (Handmaid, Martha, Guardian, Commander, Commander’s Wife, etc), we see a totalitarian society where everyone is oppressed in their own way. The story is narrated by Offred, a Handmaid, and follows her journey in transitioning to this new reality. As a Handmaid she only has one purpose – to breed. Her meals are designed to increase her chances of conception, she is only allowed out of the house during her morning walk, and she is required to wear the Handmaids’ uniform. Simple privileges like choosing an outfit or reading are no longer available to her. What has happened to her family from her previous life? Is there any way out of this way of living? Is there hope?
I devoured this book. I seriously could not put it down. The society that Atwood creates is terrifying in that it doesn’t seem altogether removed from reality. Due to Atwood’s brilliance (or my pessimism towards our society), it feels like our world really could suddenly become Offred’s world. I have heard other readers argue that they had a hard time believing the sudden transition between regimes but I had no troubles suspending this disbelief. Offred’s narration has a sad, reminiscent tone and I was more appalled than skeptical. As the book progressed, I became more and more immersed in Offred’s story. I found myself becoming paranoid with her. Who can she really trust in a world like this, when trusting the wrong person means torture and death? I couldn’t help but root for her to escape and so the book kept me on the edge of my seat till the very last page.
Beside the fact that The Handmaid’s Tale is an incredibly well-written, suspenseful book, I love it even more because it invites its readers to think. Though I appreciate the steps we have taken so far regarding women’s rights, the book made me wonder how much progress we really have made. There is so much more to be done. The distinction between “freedom to” and “freedom from” is raised in the book and while I have a new-found appreciation for my freedom to read, I am left wondering about our various “freedom froms”. There are still so many problematic discussions about birth control and rape. There is the thought that granting women’s rights means diminishing men’s rights. These thoughts are all brought to the forefront in The Handmaid’s Tale and really solidifies its stance as a cautionary, dystopic work of fiction.
I don’t want to spoil anything for those who haven’t read the book so I’ll end my review here, but I would highly recommend anyone who hasn’t read it to do so. The impact of the book left me so disturbed that I couldn’t even pick up another book to read the next day. It’s one of the best dystopian books I have ever read.
Verdict: Highly recommended
Read if: You like dystopian fiction, suspense, thought-provoking reads