Book Review: The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

Book - The Handmaids TaleThe Handmaid’s Tale has been adapted and shown on TV this year, so lots of people are reading it. Someone told me the basic premise and I was intrigued. There isn’t much joy in it, but it really gets under your skin and pulls you along. The story opens with the simple description of a room in which a woman (whose real name we never learn) is held captive against her will.   

The opening is slow-moving but these quiet (and chilling) scenes build up the suspense – you get a sense of just how unbearable her life is, living under a totalitarian regime where fear rules and there is almost no freedom, even in how she interacts with other women:

“A chair, a table, a lamp. Above, on the white ceiling, a relief ornament in the shape of a wreath, and in the centre of it, a blank space, plastered over, like the place in a face where the eye has been taken out. There must have been a chandelier, once. They’ve removed anything you could tie a rope to.”

It is supposed to represent a future America where fertility rates have dropped, and the ruling elite are desperate for babies, so desperate that they create a whole system for trafficking women in order to produce surrogate mothers. It is done under the guise of ‘religion’ – supposedly some distorted echo of Christianity, using a few Old Testament quotes out of context and forcing these ‘handmaids’ to wear voluminous dresses and head coverings which restrict their vision.

We see flashbacks to the time before (which seems fairly ordinary) and eventually the whole story is revealed. Our unnamed protagonist has been forcibly separated from her husband and daughter, and is desperate to see them again, but afraid of what she might discover.

The most striking thing for me was to see inside the mind of someone who has been trafficked (effectively ‘enslaved’). She has been indoctrinated to such an extent that she even begins to believe some of the things they say, whilst being semi-aware of her own indoctrination. She is also desperate for things we take for granted – the ability to converse freely, to read, to say what you think.

The book is written in a way that makes it seem very real – almost in real time, yet told by a narrator who freely admits that she has misremembered some of what she tells, sometimes even re-telling sections of the story many times over. This, and the fictional ‘Historical Note’ at the end, made me realise how easy it could be to view the suffering of others (past or present) with an arrogant, patronising attitude, and how easy it can be to judge.

I would certainly recommend this book. It’s not a pleasant read, but it will pull you along as you search for its meaning, its warning, and its ending. It will make you wonder what you would do, if faced with the same choices as these characters, and whether you would give in, or fight.

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood is published by Vintage Books.

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And the frightening thing is that this kind of enslavement (or trafficking) is not just science fiction or distant past. It happens today, right here in the UK. Here are some films created by Red Community, about the reality of sex trafficking in Wales.

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