Author: Margaret Atwood
Details: (c) 1985 OW Toad Ltd; Pub Virago Press Ltd 1991; ISBN 0-86068-866-6
Verdict: The Handmaid's Tale is too unsubtly polemical to be a real success, and on the whole I found it rather boring.
Reasons for reading it: It seems to get referred to a lot by people worrying about current political trends. And it's a bit of a feminist classic, so I'd been vaguely meaning to read it for a while.
How it came into my hands: Another one I scored in Ely last week.
This is not the first time I've felt like I ought to like Atwood, but if I'm honest, I basically don't. I find her writing overly clever-clever, both the word-plays and the way things are structured, the clever allusions and that sort of thing. It doesn't engage me emotionally at all. Also, the story is obscured by the 'misogyny is bad!' message, which seems too absolutely obvious to justify a whole novel.
The Handmaid's Tale seems to be more or less a feminist reworking of 1984. I can't see why a feminist version was needed; Orwell's dystopia was very obviously miserable for women as well. But then I don't think most things need a specifically feminist rewriting anyway. Everything that annoyed me about tHT was made more annoying by the sense of déjà vu, of reading a lesser quality imitation of something written 40 years earlier.
The scenario described in tHT is pretty horrific, yes. But it didn't really have much emotional impact on me. Even though the narrator is drawn with a lot of detail, somehow I didn't find myself able to relate to her that well. And I don't really see the point of imagining lots of bad things that might possibly happen, if there isn't anything more to a story than that. After all, there are enough horrors and people being tortured and oppressed in reality without needing to make up a fictional brutal regime.
tHT also didn't seem to present much of a plausible case for how we might end up with this sort of dystopia. Unless possibly you believe that anyone who has any doubts about abortion is just using that as an excuse for their hatred of women and desire to keep the whole gender as oppressed as can possibly be managed. I have seen that case made, and it does seem to be applicable to some elements of the pro-life movement, but still. Reading tHT as very extended pro-choice polemic doesn't endear the book to me either.
The other huge problem with tHT is the epilogue. Without it, the ending is totally ambiguous and as such, gives a glimpse of the sort of power that Orwell achieved. Making it explicit that the misogynist dystopia was just a passing, localized political phase and in the long term everything will work out, not just for society but for the narrator herself, really spoils that impact. Also, the epilogue uses infodumps to explain things that were perfectly obvious when they were just hints picked up from the story, which is patronizing and annoying. And then trying to 'solve' the problem of how exactly the narrative came to exist, given its setting where the heroine has no access to any form of communication with the outside world, actually threw into relief that flaw. Without the epilogue, I would have been happy to suspend disbelief and simply accept that I was reading Offred's thoughts.
I stayed up late-ish last night finishing tHT, but mainly because I'm really rather bored of it and want to read something more fun. I could have just not finished it, but a book has to be a lot worse than this for me to actually give up.
I hope this negative review doesn't give the impression that I don't care about sexism and misogyny. That's not at all the case, I just don't think that the novel contributes anything to improving the lot of women in society. I mean, if you already believe that there is systematic oppression of women, you're just going to be nodding along with tHT and thinking, oh yes, aren't men bastards and what wouldn't they do if they had the opportunity. And if you don't accept this premise, (or some milder version of it), I can't see that the book is going to change anyone's mind.