Saturday, 12 July 2008

The Handmaid's Tale

by Margaret Atwood

Published by Vintage

I read a couple of Atwood's novels last year - Cat's Eye, The Robber Bride - and thoroughly enjoyed them. Like lots of people I think Atwood is a clever writer. Her stories are never predictable and always good brain food and I always find myself reading bits aloud to whoever is within earshot.

I knew The Handmaid's Tale would be depressing - imagined futures in fiction usually are. Authors tend towards the 'glass half full' when it comes to the fortunes of the human race. When she peered into her crystal ball, Atwood's vision was no different.

The story concerns an unnamed girl, known only as Offred, who has been forced into the position of Handmaiden to a wealthy, childless couple. Society has undergone colossal changes ever since a mysterious nuclear incident, the details of which are not made clear. Offred has lost everything - her husband, her daughter, her mother, friends and her liberty. She must wear a red gown which covers everything except her eyes and she must obey the strict code of conduct which the new rulers dictate. The conditions which the people face are infuriating and I found myself constantly wishing for a happy ending for Offred and the countless other victims of the revolution.

Offred narrates her own story movingly. Her voice feels real. She jumps around in the time-line, tantalising us with facts and half-known information about the other characters, such as her husband, Luke, her mother and her friends. What has happened to these people? I wanted to know, just as much as Offred did.

Atwood writes sparsely, the narration steps along like slow clicking heels on a marble floor. Her imagery is deceptively simple: describing the slow changes of the new regime as being like bathwater which is constantly getting hotter. We can feel the slow rising heat of these changes as Offred describes how her life slowly melted around her. We can also apply Atwood's metaphor (and her warning) to our own lives and the slow, seemingly benign 'improvements' to our world - identity cards, metal detectors in schools, curfews for teens...

The final chapter skips ahead a few hundred or thousand years to a time when Offred's words have become a historical artefact. The coldness with which her story is considered- the distant view of the historian - feels wrong. This is a testament to Atwood's clever writing, however. Having just spent three hundred pages hearing Offred's whispering confidences, the last thing we can do is treat her story as a primary source.

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