Sunday, 4 December 2011

Book Review: The Handmaid's Tale, by Margaret Atwood (1985)

A bleak vision of a suffocating near-future dystopian society, The Handmaid's Tale is a street level view of what may happen to women in an extreme Christian fundamentalist United States. Margaret Atwood puts forward a disturbing if high unlikely fictional scenario, but the good ideas are undermined by an overly descriptive writing style that spins its wheels in fractured sentences that rarely arrive at satisfying destinations.

The story is told in the first person, as a diary of a Handmaid, the name applied to fertile women who are forced into a life of servant sex surrogacy and assigned to Commanders of the new society, whose Wives are barren. The book imagines a near future where human rights and the US constitution have been suspended, the extreme right has assumed full control of government, authoritarian rule has been imposed, and diseases and toxic poisoning have rendered most of humanity unable to recreate. Women who can still get pregnant and who are deemed to have lived promiscuous lives (according to the broadest definition of lewdness) are arrested and pressed into service as sex servants, suffering through systemic rituals of impregnation by the Commanders.

Atwood paints the society outside the Handmaid's tight existence in the broadest strokes, imagining group titles but leaving most of the details unresolved. There are Eyes and Guardians, who apparently serve as internal spies and security services respectively. There are Marthas (domestic servants) and Aunts (disciplinarian indoctrinators of the Handmaids). There is a Wall where traitors to the regime are hung in a gruesome display of what happens to dissidents. There are group rituals such as Salvaging and Particicution, introduced too late and in the last twenty pages of the book, to demonstrate the savagery of the new rulers.

Unlike George Orwell's 1984, there is little in The Handmaid's Tale to convince that the monstrous new regime is viable, and Atwood resorts to a contrived Historical Notes chapter that fills in some of the more interesting details about her imagined world.

Most of the book is otherwise occupied with the unfocused ramblings inside our Handmaid's head as she goes through the mundane business of living, with whiny recollections of her previous life, her former lover Luke, and her missing daughter. The Handmaid is drawn into illicitly spending more time than necessary with her Commander, although these encounters lead nowhere, and is finally convinced to have sex with the Commander's driver Nick, with whom she develops a complicating relationship. These plot developments are spottily spread over a field of thick non-events, and struggle to maintain momentum.

Atwood uses as much text as possible to say very little, and many of her passages consist of run-on paragraphs constructed from the tiniest of sentences interrupted by an army of commas. It is a tiresome and rarely effective style, which collapses entirely when Atwood's Handmaid starts to cheaply toy with describing events that did not even occur.

The Handmaid's Tale contains the germs of interesting if far fetched ideas, stifled by a writing style more suited to a draggy and tragic romance than a thoughtful examination of a fearsome future.

Published in softcover by Seal Books.
293 pages including Historical Notes.

All Ace Black Blog Book Reviews are here.

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