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The Handmaid's Tale
Margaret Atwood
Vintage, 324 pages

The Handmaid's Tale
Margaret Atwood
Margaret Atwood was born in 1939 in Ottawa, Ontario. She attended Victoria College, University of Toronto (B.A., 1961), Radcliffe College in Cambridge (A.M., 1962) and Harvard University. She has worked as a Lecturer in English (University of British Columbia), an Instructor in English (Sir George Williams University, Montreal), and an Assistant Professor of English (York University, Toronto). Her recent awards include being shortlisted for the 2002 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award (The Blind Assassin), shortlisted for the 2001 Orange Prize (The Blind Assassin) and The Booker Prize for The Blind Assassin in 2000.

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Martin Lewis

Though The Handmaid's Tale received wide-spread acclaim within the genre, the only award it won was the Arthur C. Clarke Award. In doing so it set a precedent for non-genre writers winning the ACCA and established the award as the most receptive to overtly literary works. It also set something of a high watermark.

Following a coup that leaves the government of the United States dead, a fundamentalist Christian regime establishes the state of Gilead in New England. Immediately all women's rights (to vote, to own property, to make any decision) are revoked.

The constant civil war that followed the coup (and continues in the background of the novel) has left swathes of the continental USA blighted and the majority of women infertile. Inspired by the biblical tale of Rachel and Bilhah, Gilead decrees that all fertile woman are forced to act as Handmaids, surrogate mothers who will bear the children of infertile couples. The term "surrogate mother" implies perhaps modern pleasantries like in vitro fertilisation; such things are prohibited, it actually means enforced ritualised rape.

The novel takes the form of a memoir by one of these Handmaids, an unnamed woman who is only ever identified as Offred, a patronymic of ownership. Because she was her husband's second wife, her marriage was declared void and her young daughter taken away from her. Never learning the fate of her husband, she is inducted into a training camp for Handmaids where she is indoctrinated by cattle prod-wielding Aunts. The Handmaid's Tale is composed of her memories of the camp, the time before the coup and her stay in the house of the commander who gives her her name. These memories combine to build an extraordinary portrait of an ordinary woman in extraordinary circumstances. Like Margaret Atwood's depiction of Grace Marks in Alias Grace, the portrait of Offred is complex, contradictory and totally beguiling. Rather than the bitterness and rage we could plausibly expect, instead we find almost a sense of ennui, a fact Offred notes:

"We were on some kind of pill or drug I think, they put it in the food, to keep us calm. But maybe not. Maybe it was the place itself. After the first shock, after you'd come to terms, it was better to be lethargic."
It serves as a protective cocoon but it does not smother her or rendered her passive. Her account is shot through with contempt, desire, slyness ("The knife she uses is sharp and bright, and tempting. I would like to have a knife like that.") and, of course, anger. However, the backwards-looking format and self-imposed lethargy mean that despite the horrific regime and unimaginable tortures she endures her voice is reflective:
"The commander is fucking. What he is fucking is the lower part of my body. I do not say making love, because this is not what he's doing. Copulating too is inaccurate, because it would imply two people and only one is involved. Nor does rape cover it: nothing is going on here that I haven't signed up for. There wasn't a lot of choice but there was some, and this is what I chose."
This is more charitable than any reader is likely to be. After all, her choice is suicide or dying a slow death picking cotton in the contaminated wasteland of the Colonies.

While Atwood's prose is flawless and the mosaic-style composition works well, some elements of the construction niggle. In all post-catastrophe novels, it is generally best to keep the actual how-we-got-there-from-here transition off stage. Atwood does not do this and her depiction of the ease of the rise of Gilead and the apathy with which people greet its beginnings does not ring true. A more serious problem is the framing device, which serves almost as an insult to the main narrative of the novel. This 'Historical Notes' appendix, while not fundamentally altering the text, seems an unnecessary blunt, even cruel, way to end such an astonishing narrative.

The Handmaid's Tale can be read as a cautionary tale, not in the sense that Atwood believes a similar turn of events could come to pass but rather as a reminder not to forget woman's rights are a fairly recent development. In Offred's memories of before Gilead, she is dismissive of her radical feminist mother, believing her to have become irrelevant. This fairly brutal irony about the superficiality of the appearance of the permanence of female emancipation is the heart of the novel, as all dystopias stem from a fear of the removal of liberty. It is Atwood's astonishing skill as a writer and the brilliancy of her characterisation that provides this idea with its power.

Copyright © 2002 Martin Lewis

Martin Lewis lives in South London; he is originally from Bradford, UK. He writes book reviews for The Telegraph And Argus.

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