There is so much to say about this book and I am sure I will forget most of it in the writing. I feel as though it is one of those books that I will keep returning to in my mind, thinking about different aspects as they apply to life.
A bit of a spoiler alert. I know that some people like spoilers. I do not. Therefore the spoiler alert.
Attwood lures you in to the story from the first page, presenting the reality of the Republic of Gilead as it is, with no explanation. While I have found that this is pretty common of science fiction in general, it seems to be important to outline the details of the fantasy universe early on to allow the story to begin, I often find it difficult to enter in to a completely foreign world without any hook to draw me in. Yet the hook was present from the very first page. This is a world of women she constructs, of individuals who have been picked for an unknown reason and who are desperate to hold on to their identities.
I really admired the constraint of the author in this book, we don’t find out what caused the collapse of the government and the creation of the Republic of Gilead until well in to the book, and when we do it felt so alarmingly plausible (particularly in the context of this year, with debates over the place of nuclear power following the earthquake in Fukushima and the ongoing religious tensions throughout the world) that a chill definitely settled on my spine.
While it wasn’t a pleasant read I consumed this book with greed, desperate to know what became of Offred, where the relationship with Commander would lead, if the Republic of Gilead would ever end. So when I came to the rather abrupt end of Offred being led off in the van, I felt the jarring absence of closure, the dystopian nature of the book reaching its climax. With this mindset, I found myself very uncomfortable reading the last chapter, presented as ‘historical notes’, and it took me a good while to understand my reaction to the story ending the way it did. The last chapter afforded me a relief that Offred, or ‘June’, was relatively safe, that she had managed to escape and had reached some sort of safety. Yet I was so angry at the flippant way the future historians discussed her case, and the material they had found. Having expended so much empathy on Offred and the other Handmaids it was so difficult to ‘listen’ to a speech delivered by future historians which included jokes, speculations on her identity and on the intricacies of figuring out how to compile the material. I think it was then, in my anger, that I realised just how the craft of historians can be so frequently dismissive of lived experience, devoid of compassion and of empathy towards the individuals within the archives. While I feel that this has changed very much within the last ten or twenty years within historical scholarship, it was a cautionary note to me to always treat the people I write about in the past with respect and compassion.
Ultimately, I felt that this book sent a passionate message about the importance of society being ever vigilant to a woman’s right to control her body. I have become aware this year through incidents in the US surrounding reproductive rights just how frail and hard-won our rights to abortion and contraception are. It is a right that has to be constantly defended and pushed for. In The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood offers a beautifully written horror story of what happens to a society when inequality is permitted to persist.