Thursday, 23 August 2012

Review: The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood

There seems to be a huge influx of dystopian novels on the market again. I recently read an article which claimed that the number of books in this genre rises and falls in relation to the political or economical situation in the real world. Perhaps people are looking for reassurance that things could in fact be worse, and what better place to get it than a dystopian novel?
I personally love a good dystopia, hmmm seems a bit of a contradiction there, but it's true. I'm a big fan of 1984, Brave New World and A Clockwork Orange (the classics) however Margaret Atwood is definitely getting closer to the top of the list.

This is the second of her novels I have read, and this one far surpasses the previous one.

As with any good dystopia, it is written in a sort of way which presumes that the reader knows what this world is like, and has experience of it, so you have to learn slowly about this horrible new place as you read and gleam small pieces of information dropped casually into conversation. The narrators are writing, not to readers in the past or in a different dimension, they are writing to their peers, and the commonality amongst them all is that the point of view we see is contradictory to the expected or perhaps even legal one of their world.

From what we know of the world in The Handmaid's Tale, something (an unknown something) has happened which has caused a large percentage of the population to become sterile. Because of this, young and fertile women are given the position of Handmaid's. These handmaids are then selected to serve rich or powerful couples, such as members of government whose wives cannot bear children. The thing I particularly like about this part of the novel is the incongruity in what exactly this means. In one way, a Handmaid is a servant, however in another way they are looked upon with awe and respect by many. Within the families where they are employed however, many of the wives feel threatened by these women brought in to do something where they have failed. It's a mixture of reverence and revulsion that they experience in their daily lives. 

At the back of it all however, they are nothing more than slaves, whose only purpose is to bear children. If they cannot do this after 3 attempts, they are banished and declared an unwoman. Sex becomes a ritual almost religious ceremony where husband, wife and handmaid all take part. But women have no rights, and no power in this world. Both the handmaids and the wives partake in this almost primitive lifestyle, with no hope of escape. Once again, failure to conceive is blamed on the woman, the chance that the man may be the sterile one is never really considered and I'm sure would be considered blasphemy. 

The further you read in this novel, the more familiar I think it sounds. That's the disturbing part of dystopias for me, the knowledge that something like this isn't as alien as it appears at first. This world was created by a military dictatorship who froze women's assets and made them completely dependent on their husbands and partners. It could happen, in fact, it is almost a return to earlier times.

Either way, I absolutely loved reading this book, I was completely hooked and it just got better as I read on.

Score: 5/5 - Amazing Read

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