Wednesday 30 November 2011

The Handmaid's Tale - Margaret Atwood

Title: The Handmaid's Tale
Author: Margaret Atwood
Genre: Sci-Fi
Published: 1985
Formats: Hardback/Paperback/Ebook

Available at:
The Book Depository
Amazon UK

"The Handmaid's Tale" by Margaret Atwood was chosen as the November read for the Women of Science Fiction Book Club. I was a little bit unsure about this at first as to be honest, I knew Margaret Atwood was the author of one of my wife's books and to be honest, her books aren't always my cup of tea.

The story is set within a bleak and totalitarian, Christian fundamentalist, dystopian Northern United States. Any opposition to the regime or failure to follow the strict rules is punishable by death or deportation to the labour colonies. In this society, most people have been given specific regimented roles that no one can venture away from. None more so that the "Handmaids" who are women seen as being fertile who, due to plummeting birth rates are enslaved as breeding machines for the political leaders of the nation. The story follows one of these "Handmaids" and lets the reader witness the oppression and fears she must endure just to stay alive.

To be honest, the plot is rather standard for a dystopian novel but I did find it interesting enough and Atwood has created a society that truly is chilling and depressing. She has taken so many of the negative aspects of our world and utilised them in some great world development. What she created when she wrote this back in the 1980's is something that feels eerily similar to the stories and reports that come out about some totalitarian Islamic societies today. Personally though, I have to admit that I did find it a little bit unbelievable that the US society could have degraded as quickly and badly as it did in this manner, but as this is a speculative fiction novel I was willing to just accept the premise anyway.

The novel is written in the present tense, purely from the point of view of the main character, Offred with the overall plot being interspersed with various flashbacks of her life. At times I found this to be very interesting as it teased out some of the back story, but at other times it just irritated me as some of the flashbacks were "inaccurate" due to Offred's distorted memories. I understand that these distortions in some of flashbacks were probably there to let the reader understand the state that Offred had now fallen to, but I just got a little bit bored of the repetition of the same type of thing. In addition I have to admit that I found the transitions between present and these flashbacks weren't always the best or easiest to follow which could at times interrupt the flow of the novel.

In regards to the pace, this book really does crawl along; I am actually quite impressed I managed to finish it in as quick a period as I actually did. But this is probably because at its heart the book does have a rather interesting and meaningful story that I was willing to follow although it was a struggle at times. In addition, I think Atwood has maybe intentionally utilised a slow pace to highlight how tedious and relentless Offred's existence actually was. Basically, I wouldn't advise anyone to pick this up as a light read for the beach or train journey as it really needs some dedication in my opinion.

The writing style itself wasn't really for me to be honest; it is too full of metaphors, similes and some strangely constructed prose. In particular, I couldn't stand the lack of speech marks; it just made the book harder to read in my opinion, especially considering it is a rather deep book to try and follow anyway. There is a reason I dropped English Literature & Language classes at 16 and that is because I read to be entertained, not to marvel in the complexities of the English Language. I suspect my wife would probably love it but I can't say this experience of Atwood's style has persuaded me to pick up any of her other novels at the moment.

Overall, I felt that "The Handmaid's Tale" was a reasonable novel if a little slow going. Personally, I have to say that whilst I found the book to be enjoyable enough, I think it has a reputation way beyond what I think it deserves, however we all have our own opinions and mine may just be at odds with the majority due to my own various likes and dislikes. I will say that due to its reputation, I think that think anyone interested in dystopian novels should pick this up and give it a read. In addition I think it would also probably appeal to those who like contemporary fiction with deeper meanings and complex, novel use of the English language.


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