The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood
(Note: This is my 200th book review! To celebrate this, I thought it only right it should be about a classic novel. This also gives me the opportunity to throw in a bit of politics, which my readers know I've completely avoided using this blog for until now.)
Most people have heard of, if not read, this speculative fiction book by Margaret Atwood. For those who don't know, this is a dystopian story of what Atwood imagined could happen if men took total dominance over women, and relegated them to being only wives, servants and baby-making machines. Originally published in 1985, this novel was a way for Atwood to fictionalize her own social commentary after observing increasing Christian fundamentalism that included no small amount of anti-women rhetoric.
Before I go any further, I should note that I was a bit late to this party. I only read this novel this past year, although I've long wanted to read it. When I needed audio books to "read" while recovering from surgery on my eyelids, this was my first choice. A choice I do not regret in the least, including the fact that I found Clare Danes' voice to be particularly appropriate to read the protagonist Offred's account of her ordeals in the Republic of Gilead. In fact, the natural strain and worry that Danes' voice has (which sometimes annoyed me while watching her in Homeland), was what made her reading this book so effective. For this alone, I could give this book a full five stars, but of course, there are many more reasons why it deserves top marks.
First, this book, despite its age, is no less relevant today than it was in 1985. In fact, I urge you to listen to this interview with her from the BBC, which proves this very point. Note her answer when she's asked if she didn't over speculate as to how bad it could get if the religious right were to take hold. However, the point isn't if she's predicted a real possibility or not. No, the point is how Atwood portrays this with such amazing subtlety, that it is a wonder to behold. You see, most of the story focuses on Offred's personal account of being a handmaid, a woman taken from her home and forced to become a surrogate to produce offspring for a wealthy childless couple. At the same time, Atwood slips the back-story of how society evolved into such an oppressive state into only a couple of passages sprinkled throughout the book. These are very telling, remarkably pointed, and frankly, very scary. Let me quote from this book to prove this point.
It was after the catastrophe, when they shot the President and machine-gunned the Congress and the army declared a state of emergency. They blamed it on the Islamic fanatics, at the time.
Keep calm, they said on television. Everything is under control.
I was stunned. Everyone was, I know that. It was hard to believe. The entire government, just like that. How did they get in, how did it happen?
That was when they suspended the Constitution. They said it would be temporary. There wasn't even any rioting in the streets. People stayed home at night, watching television, looking for some direction. There wasn't even an enemy you could put your finger on.
After a couple of lines, she adds this:
Things continued in that state of suspended animation for weeks, although some things did happen. Newspapers were censored and some were closed down, for security reasons they said. The roadblocks began to appear, and Identipasses. Everyone approved of that, since it was obvious you couldn't be too careful. They said that new elections would be held, but that it would take some time to prepare for them. The thing to do, they said, was to continue on as usual.
Now, combine this with her more recent speculative fiction novel, The Heart Goes Last, that includes her vision of how an oligarchy can find a "solution" to the crime, poverty, unemployment and homelessness problems, and you have yourself the type of society that certain elements in today's America might see as the perfect "wet dream" for the country's future.
I'm not saying that this will happen, but I must admit that there have been statements made throughout the present election campaign, that point to my wondering if someone isn't actually reading Atwood to get some nasty ideas. With people excusing misogyny, seriously calling to repeal the 19th Amendment (which gave women the right to vote), and the increasing xenophobia, Islamophobia and general racism, isn't something like this just remotely possible? Furthermore, when I read articles like this or this (and sadly, these are just from today), I think that Atwood is right, "Somebody has to tell the Republicans the Handmaid's Tale is not a blueprint." For that matter, we need to keep them away from "The Heart Goes Last" as well.
Leaving politics aside (as much as possible), I want to emphasize that Atwood's genius is in viewing the real world, and imagining where the wrong direction could take us. Using that as a basis of her books, she attempts to warn us how these paths could wind up damaging society as a whole. The question is, will we listen and take heed, or will we allow someone to twist Atwood's vivid imagination to bring about a real-life dystopia? I'm hoping it will be the former, and of course, this book deserves a full five stars out of five - for both the content, and the excellent audio version.
"The Handmaid's Tale" by Margaret Atwood is available from Amazon US, Amazon UK, Barnes & Noble, Kobo Books (USA, Canada & Australia), iTunes (iBook or audiobook), The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), new or used from Alibris or Better World Books (your purchase contributes to world-wide literacy) as well as from an IndieBound store near you.