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Monday, 1 October 2012

Book Review: The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood

I was certainly late to the party with The Handmaid's Tale. Margaret Atwood's 1985 novel imagines a dystopian future where strict Christian values have taken over and women, amongst others, are the major casualties. The protagonist, Offred, is the handmaid of the title, a fertile woman who has been put in the house of an important couple to have a baby for them. Slowly, via her monologue, we learn about her present and the past which created it, ending with a look at the future.

Atwood creates a potent world which is recognisable as our own but fundamentally different. She refrains from describing the world, allowing Offred to reveal it slowly. While this is effective, there was a sense for me that very little actually happened in the first third of the novel. This isn't to say that it wasn't interesting, just that an awful lot had to be set up before things 'out of the ordinary' could occur. However, Atwood's strong prose goes a long way towards making that irrelevant. One thing which irritated me personally were the varying chapter lengths cut up by subtitles. While I understood the significance of them, at times it felt like the flow was completely interrupted and I found it difficult to get back into the story. This was probably deliberate but it jarred on me occasionally.

The Handmaid's Tale is as relevant a novel now as it was in 1985. The thought occurred to me time and again while reading it and, for that reason alone, it's certainly worth reading. It's a social commentary about women, traditional values and religion which are all topics still prevalent in US politics and beyond. Not a disappointing novel by any stretch of the imagination but one that makes for uncomfortable reading throughout.

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