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Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Book Review: The Handmaid’s Tale

I was reading the other day about a controversy at a local college over the English department’s chosen common text for the semester. I immediately decided to read it because there is nothing I like more than a controversial book.

The Handmaid’s Tale describes a dystopian society in the near future where a totalitarian regime has removed nearly every trace of freedom from the women. Women are covered from head to toe and no longer allowed to read. Declining fertility leads to a class of “handmaids” who act as concubines to the wealthy men. The extra twist is that the setting is the US, taken over by Christian fundamentalists and renamed it the Republic of Gilead.

Offred, the title character, is a Handmaid; the concept is stolen from a very literal reading of the Biblical story of Rachel and Leah’s who gave their handmaids Bilhah and Zilphah to their husband Jacob in order to increase the number of their offspring. Although Offred was once an average American woman with a husband and daughter of her own, her only job now is to have sex once a month with her Commander in order to produce he and his wife a child.

While The Handmaid’s Tale treads similar territory to Brave New World and 1984, I think it is a fascinating read well worth the effort. Having attended for many years a Christian church in the throes of an extremely fundamentalist line of thinking, I found myself wanting to pump my arms in the air and yell “Yes! This is what happens when extremists use religion to justify their politics!”

The Handmaid’s Tale should definitely be on your reading list. Not because it is an accurate picture of the religion by any means, but it does offer a look at fundamentalist teachings taken to their ultimate conclusion and warns us that the picture isn’t pretty. Atwood writes beautiful prose and I was totally drawn in to her writing. The book doesn’t explain everything that’s going on right away, and in the early chapters, each tantalizing clue as to what happened to Offred and what the Republic of Gilead is makes it hard to put the book down.


Eva said...

Surfed over here via the Sci-Fi experience. :) I read The Handmaid's Tale right before my senior year of high school, and I really enjoyed it. Have you read any other Atwood? I think she's really good at doing the teaser-style plots where information is slowly revealed. My favourite of hers (that I've read, anyway) is The Blind Assassin.

Carl V. said...

Thanks for linking in on the sci fi experience site!

Haven't read any of Atwood's books in the past, at least not that I can remember.

Nice review, glad you enjoyed the book and glad you're participating in 'the experience'.

Debi said...

Wow...this sounds too good to pass up. And hey, I'm about to head to the bookstore anyway.

Thanks for the extraordinary review!

Kimberly said...

eva- I haven't read any other Atwood YET but when I was at the library, I also picked up The Blind Assassin. I'm looking forward to it

carl v-no prob, I'm new to the blogging thing but I love reading and getting new book suggestions.

debi-thanks for the compliment I really appreciate the encouragement.

Nymeth said...

I've been meaning to read this book for years, and it hadn't occurred to me that it would fit the experience perfectly! I'm very tempted to read it too now. Thank you for the lovely review.

Rhinoa said...

I really liked this book and have become a mini fan of Atwood (I am reading my fourth book by her at the moment and plan on reading at least another 3 this year hopefully). What did you think of the ending (without giving too much away for those who haven't read it...)?

Bold Blue Adventure said...

Nymeth-you're welcome. I bet you'll enjoy the book.

Rhinoa-I thought the ending of the book part was a little too ambiguous for me, I was looking for a little more resolution. As far as the very end, I did like how it tied up certain things in the book and shed light onto certain events in the book. What did you think?