Author : Margaret Atwood
Copyright : 1985
Release Date : March 16, 1998
Publisher : Anchor; 1st Anchor Books edition
ISBN-10: 038549081X
ISBN-13: 978-0385490818
Pages: 320

My first thought after Chapter One : surreal. I thought, oh no, not one of those esoteric ones again.

This isn’t the normal type of book I’d pick up to read; but now, I understand its surprising appeal. It’s the kind that can linger in you way after you’ve finished the book and gone on to others—disturbing, thought-provoking, and very unique.

If you haven’t read a synopsis anywhere or bothered to look at the teaser at the back cover, you’d be a little lost in the beginning. The story starts out vaguely with the distracted ramblings of the narrator, Offred, as she tells of her circumstances in the present. In between, she surprises you with sudden glimpses of her past; and this is how the story falls into place — in bit by bit revelations. Persevere reading through enough flashbacks until you get the picture; and, see how Atwood gets you hooked by the middle of the book.

So what’s this all about ?

Sometime in this century , an extreme and radical theocracy violently supplants U.S. democracy and changes the structure of every societal aspect as we know it — the family unit, religion, judicial system, etc. This is the Gileadean Republic, the totalitarian response to everything plaguing the Caucasian race, most notable ones being the decline in fertility and birth rates of normal babies. This severely patriarchal society forces a new way of life, based on the Old Testament Bible, twisted to serve a ruling male elite — the Commanders, and to justify the total subjugation of women as merely breeders, domestic slaves, and pliant wives, to name a few roles.

Offred is a handmaid, a breeding vessel whose primary social function is to lie on her back, hope to be impregnated, and bear a normal healthy baby for the good of society. Failing this mission in her childbearing years, she becomes an intolerable burden to all. The story is Offred’s account of her thoughts and emotions as a handmaid in this unforgiving Giledean order.

I am a sucker for beautiful writing; so despite the surrealism, I was inevitably drawn to the author’s poetic style. I wish I, too, could string the right words together so gracefully that the resulting prose is effortlessly elegant, even when I’m being snide.

Atwood also has a distinct way of looking at things. I can’t help but give you a taste of it:

(In reference to a Bible): “ …He lets the book fall closed . It makes an exhausted sound, like a padded door shutting, by itself, at a distance : a puff of air. The sound suggests the softness of the thin oniony pages, how they would feel under the fingers. Soft and dry, like papier poudre, pink and powdery, from the time before, you’d get it in booklets for taking the shine off your nose…” — p. 85

“The interviews with people still alive then were in colour. The one I remember best was with a woman who had been the mistress of a man who had supervised one of the camps where they put the Jews, before they killed them. In ovens, my mother said;…

He was not a monster, she said…She did not believe he was a monster. He was not a monster, to her. Probably he had some endearing trait: he whistled off key, in the shower, he had a yen for truffles, he called his dog Liebchen and made it sit up for little pieces of raw steak. How easy it is to invent a humanity, for anyone at all. What an available temptation…” — pp.136 -137

“…every spring they had a Humphrey Bogart festival, with Lauren Bacall or Katharine Hepburn, women on their own, making up their minds. They wore blouses with buttons down the front that suggested the possibilities of the word undone. These women could be undone; or not. They seemed to be able to choose. We seemed to be able to choose, then. We were a society dying, said Aunt Lydia, of too much choice.” — p. 24

If asked, would I read another Atwood novel, my answer would be a resounding “Yes”. But only after taking a deep breath while preparing myself before a dive into eccentricity. Now, I’m just making a guess here. Maybe her other novels aren’t strange; but, what I do hope is that she delivers writing of this same calibre.  It is exactly for this that A Handmaid’s Tale earns a permanent place in my shelf.

My Mark : Excellent

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