WHY has it taken me this long to read this book?
OK, fine, I know why.
The Handmaid’s TAle used to be a common set book for English Lit GCSE (the UK public exams for 16-year olds). Sizable numbers of the population are forced to read it. They have no choice. They don’t love it. But really, the big question is: WHY DID I LISTEN TO THOSE PEOPLE? Those are the people that didn’t choose English for A Level. Those are the people who watch ITVbe and think that Avid Merrion is an amusing comedic figure. Those are the people who enjoyed 50 Shades of Grey. I hate those people!
According to this blog, I haven’t read any Atwood for years. More fool me. I went through an enthusiast stage where I read The Blind Assassin and Alias Grace practically on the trot, and I should have kept it up. Read my lips: Margaret Atwood is amazing. AMAZING! Her books have a normality of style at odds with wild, dystopian plots or settings. It manages impossibly to be simple and readable, and yet on closer inspection intricate, unsettling, full of imagery and description. There’s a cool aloofness in her writing, a brushing over disturbed, rustling layers echoing down and down. Because there’s always something pretty dark at the bottom.
Due to the GCSE link, I had vaguely thought of The Handmaid’s Tale as Young Adult fiction. But it ain’t. It’s (ah, luxuriate in the bliss) set in a parallel present, in a world where America is now Gilead, a repressive, patriarchal monotheistic megastate, in which everyone’s roles are starkly defined and ritualised. Inside the borders of the state, women are either Wives or Handmaids, women assigned to high-ranking childless couples to bear children for them (exactly how this is done is spelled out in unflinching detail.) There’s something of Science Fiction about it, but it also draws all too clearly on details from other repressive regimes the world over.
Atwood is sheer genius in the way in which she uncovers this world piece by inching piece and never completely, leading with the tale of Offred, a handmaid. Through her domestic routine we oh-so-slowly (and the pace does drag slightly) build up a picture of this brave new world, inching closer to an understanding of how it came to be. It makes you think, it links it all back to life today (well, it was written in the mid 1980s but close enough), it’s numbed, it’s raw, it’s – yes. It explodes new thoughts and possibilities in your mind, which has got to be one of the markers of a serious player when it comes to a novel. And it combines this high-thinking with good storytelling and characters that feel real, despite the unrealness around them.
I’ve read some crap books recently. Really, 2015 was a real literary let-down. I didn’t even do a review of the reading year on the blog as it didn’t warrant it. But this?! YES! I don’t care if you don’t read this one specifically. But do yourself a favour and head to the “A” shelves of the bookshop. She’s written plenty, and with their smooth writing and crinkled ideas, one’s bound to pique your interest. You won’t go wrong. Atwood for President.