Saturday, November 03, 2012

The Handmaid's Tale - Margaret Atwood

The problem with writing about the biggies is that it can never be a review - because you're obviously not qualified to review. At best, it can be "This is what I thought about this book the first time I read it" - a note for a curious Future You. Because a book like this, you can't read it just once. Even as you're reading it, you're already planning to read it again.

The Handmaid's Tale was a book I had been itching to get my hands on for some time. The premise was delicious - a dystopian future in which women have been divided according to the functions the males have assigned them. Some women are housekeepers and nothing else. The women who are still fertile are turned into "handmaids", assigned to high-ranking men with infertile wives - they have to have sex with these men once a month, so as to increase the population. Others are Econowives, who carry out all functions for the poorer men.

How and why does the world end up like this? That was what I wanted to know.

The how is depressingly simple, disturbingly possible. In a world where a woman's wealth is in her bank account, it is easy to block her access to it. It is easy to pass a decree that women are no longer entitled to jobs, can no longer have independent identities separate from their husbands.

And why? It is done in order to protect the women themselves, apparently. Violence against women has been increasing. Objectification is at its peak, porn and prostitution abundant. So the men come up with this scheme to "protect" the women. The women were presumably not consulted.

The story is told through the eyes of "Offred", whose real name we never know. Her given name is nothing more than "Of Fred", Fred being the Commander she is assigned to. The name signifies the fact that she doesn't have an identity, she is just a possession. She exists in the household only because her womb still functions. The Commander can have a child with her - a child who will belong to the Commander and his wife, a child she will have no claim on.

Offred does mention that this system exists only in her country, the country of Giliad, formed on what used to the USA or maybe Canada. A group of Japanese tourists visit, dressed in a fashion that would have been normal for Offred before Giliad was formed. They ask Offred if she is happy. Conscious of the consequences of giving a true answer, she says yes. And we are reminded forcefully, so forcefully, of the societies all over the world today where women are similarly repressed - countries where they are forced behind the black curtain of the hijab, where they are not allowed to vote, where they can't drive, can't have a job. Giliad does exist today - it is not a hypothetical place.

As always, Atwood's prose is beautiful. I was torn between the need to hastily read ahead, because the plot is so engrossing, and the desire to linger over some of the more lyrical passages.

Atwood is famous for her feminist writings. Her first novel was overtly feminist, even though it was written in the era before feminism. Her Booker winner was more subtly so. In The Handmaid's Tale, Offred is a complicated individual. Before Giliad happened, she considered herself a post-feminist, as opposed to her mother, an ardent feminist. She thought that she didn't really need to fight for women's rights because her mother's generation had already done what was needed. And now in Giliad, there is the need to fight, but she is too mild an individual to be able to.

The book does drag a bit in the middle, but picks up pace and twists near the end. The climax, however, is abrupt - too abrupt. The reader is left with a feeling of discontent, of having been led on. There could have been - should have been - more. We want to follow Offred on her final journey (nope, I'm not giving anything away here), but are not allowed to. 
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