Sunday, August 10, 2014

Review::The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood

The Handmaid's TaleThe Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood

I picked this up because there was a discussion about Margaret Atwood and this book was mentioned and I realized that, though I'd watched the movie, I hadn't read this at all. So since Amazon is offering the Kindle Unlimited and I was lucky enough to find this in the mix I decided I had to do it. I wasn't disappointed. But then usually I find that the novel contains a richness that can't be transformed into the screen production.

First of all, The Handmaid's Tale takes place in some dystopic future; and though it almost seems that the time of the book may already have passed without all these things happening, the guts of the story are such that one can't really shake it off and say that it won't still happen. In fact sometimes I fear that attitudes and events are conspiring to constantly try taking us in this direction.

Offred, meaning of Fred, is a handmaiden to a Commander and is described as a sacred vessel of sorts though in fact she can be considered no more or less than a sex slave. Something has wiped out the United States abilities to procreate. It seems a combination of self regulation and viruses and perhaps even drugs meant to counteract viruses. A radical religious group takes matters into their own hands and use passages from the bible to push everything back a number of decades to where women have no rights. This amounts to a form of chauvinism where women can own nothing and have no true rights and this is all done because man is superior and needs to protect women and based on their own logic of things; they mean to protect women from themselves: Feminism.

This is the story of Offred as told by Offred and apparently it was dictated onto magnetic tapes and later transcribed but we'll get to that after we get through the rest of the story. The story is in first person and it is neatly separated into First Person Present Tense for the immediate now and First Person Past Tense for the flash backs that she has. The flash backs are important because they help connect the reader to an approximation of when the now is and it also connect the reader to Offred by putting her into contemporary times. An important reason for this is that the initial connection to Offred is mostly only that which we see in the flashbacks; because she seems to be so distanced in her narration. The distancing might be deliberate because of the dehumanizing nature of what's happened to her, but there are some arguments that all of Margaret Atwood's characters in her novels are this distanced from the reader. I'll talk about that later also.

First person writing can be easy, but it can also be insidiously difficult. Add present tense and the whole thing can become interesting. Next throw in a lot and I really mean a lot of flashbacks and you can have something of a challenge. As a reader I felt this challenge as the story went along. There were a number of times I missed the cue and had to look back to find that I had in fact just slipped into a flashback without realizing it. One part of that was inattentiveness of the reader; but the other part was some of the style choices that come with flashbacks. To understand that we have to go back to the beginning which is first person and past tense that seems to introduce the story and could almost be considered the first frame of a multi framed story although it might just be a backflash. This is followed by a chapter that starts out as First Person Present Tense of what is happening in the now and contains flash backs that are primarily First Person Past Tense, but there are some of these flashbacks that allow for the style of changing tense to create more immediacy and if you miss the transition to flashback with the first few past tense verbs you easily find yourself wondering when you are when it slips into present tense.

The good news is that this doesn't last for long because the reader can separate out the time zones easily. There is early childhood with her mother; her life with Luke and her own child; her life being indoctrinated into the system; and finally the present where all the atrocities are occurring. The most important part of all this is that the early life is a contemporary life that a reader can relate to and then wonder how everything went to hell so fast.

By demonstrating the indoctrination Offred explains but does not excuse her action in the present. Being inside her head we see the conflicts she constantly puts herself through and I believe that adds to the general feeling of hopelessness that the reader is suppose to get also from all the distancing. Offred has gone through extreme dehumanizing that is only offset by a message left by the last Offred that offers a possible way to get past it all with the caveat that it comes from someone who may have taken the easy way out.

The place where it's revealed that this story is being transcribed from tapes is a place that caused me the most trouble. The story has ended and it's left the reader with much to think about then there is this thing in the back that seems to try to explain a bit about the fictional history that I really didn't feel enhanced the story for me. The only point it seemed to have is to continue making fun of the backwards steps that man is taking to remain supreme over women. And perhaps making the reader wonder how wide spread the problem was though it is given the appearance of being limited to the United States. Still for me as a reader everything up to that point stands well as the story with a hopeful ending that is left up to the reader.

I think one problem when approaching this book is to consider it as a Dystopic novel when in fact it is an extension of something that has existed and still exists on our planet. It's more of a social commentary about the dehumanizing of half the worlds population.

This is a great novel for anyone who likes something that challenges and moves them to think. It's good Soft Science Fiction or Social Science Fiction and great for the Speculative Fiction Fans. Knowing human nature I don't think that this novel can ever be fully outdated.

J.L. Dobias

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