Welcome to the Monthly Manly Review. Every month, my husband Jason contributes to Purrfectly Bookish with a book review and a linky so other male readers can share as well. Whether you're a book blogger yourself - or whether some of the female readers have just convinced the men in their lives to write a review - your link is welcome!
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The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood
Publisher: Anchor Books
Publication date: 1985
Jason's rating: 5 stars out of 5
Offred is a Handmaid in the Republic of Gilead. She may leave the home of the Commander and his wife once a day to walk to food markets whose signs are now pictures instead of words because women are no longer allowed to read. She must lie on her back once a month and pray that the Commander makes her pregnant, because in an age of declining births, Offred and the other Handmaids are valued only if their ovaries are viable. Offred can remember the years before, when she lived and made love with her husband, Luke; when she played with and protected her daughter; when she had a job, money of her own, and access to knowledge. But all of that is gone now...
In anticipation of the upcoming series on Hulu, and because it had been sitting on my “to read” pile for approximately forever, I decided to finally crack open The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood.
Handmaid is the story of Offred, a woman living in the near future in Gilead, in what was once part of the United States. Gilead is run by a extreme far right theocratic government, in which social roles (especially those of women) are strictly formalized and limited. Offred (read this Of Fred) is a Handmaid, whose role is limited to that of a reproductive vessel, assigned to powerful men to produce children, as fertility is a scarce resource in this future.
The story follows Offred through her time in the house of the Commander, and her increasingly entangled relationships with him, his Wife, a fellow Handmaid and others. Parallel is some of her backstory, from before the rise of Gilead and her attempts to escape its oppressive government.
In my opinion, there isn’t much “action” in the book, but that isn’t the point. Atwood does a masterful job building tension towards some undetermined negative end (I mean how can such a story end happily?), without the need for car chases, bombs or other Michael-Bay-esque pyrotechnics. The story here is about what happens to Offred as a human, both in her past (finding and losing love and a child) and in her present. Hope is the scarcest of resources here, and just the faint flicker of it is enough to drive the story and our protagonist towards its conclusion.
What is truly wonderful about this story is that is has aged so well. This story, if written in 2015 and not 1985, would stand up just as well. The fact that the issues facing Offred in this story still ring so true is also the most impactful thing about this book. As a woman of child-bearing age, Handmaids are treated by society as not human, but as essentially livestock, being assigned for the benefit of powerful men, and valued only for their reproductive capacities. When those are expired, Handmaids are cast aside. The roles of women in this story are so structured as to be prisons for even the most privileged among them.
Most near-future dystopian fiction I’ve read contains seeds of fantasy, a catastrophic events or series of events that allow the reader to distance themselves from the story, making it enjoyable (and often well-written) brain candy. Atwood, by contrast, keeps her vision of the near-future close enough to retain that link to non-fiction. Given the path of political discourse and human rights over the last 30 years, her story may be more unsettling now than when she wrote it.
The Handmaid’s Tale isn’t my personal dystopia, but I can see it from here.