The Handmaid’s Tale

The greatest apocalypse novels are great because they make us believe one very important thing: this could happen here. From page one to the last, my brain screamed, this could happen here. It currently happens in certain parts of the world right now.

The tale is by Offred. A horrifying name meant to signify that she is “Of Fred,” her current master. She could easily be Ofkevin or Ofluke. She lives in an America that has completely collapsed, surreptitiously overthrown by an extreme order of Christians who founded the brand new nation of Gilead. They immediately install the most draconian of measures, some out of fear. Because of unknown reasons, people have gone sterile (most likely the men) and population growth has become a major concern. The solution? Men have wives and a slew of concubines in the hopes that some or one of them will become pregnant. If they don’t, they become Unwoman, and banished to hard labor.

If it’s not every woman’s nightmare, it will be as soon as you finish the book. Told in the first person, we experience Offred’s slave-like experience. One that is narrow due to the banishment of anything fun or deemed “evil” for women. Like reading, as one example. Or face wash. What’s clear is that Offred is in a terrible kind of solitary confinement. One where fellow women keep her down. Speaking anything out of place could get you killed. Looking like you’re horrified by what’s happening around you could get you killed.

This is why we sympathize with her when Fred allows her some freedoms, and shows her some secrets of his world. Is it a betrayal to the resistance she doesn’t really know exists? She doesn’t have the luxury to care, only the desire for anything that makes her feel human.

There’s a sense of dread that permeates the entire book. You feel it, weaving in and out of every sentence. A constant dripping of terror, despite little in the way of tangible threats. Offred just knows that it doesn’t matter what she does. They could choose to kill her just because. The commander because he’s bored with her. The wife because she hates the ritual in which her husband has sex with Offred while she holds her hand. The guard who winks at her when she passes by. Everything and nothing is a threat. And your adrenaline will run high the whole novel.

It’s a great book. But it is one of those novels that is meant to say something. I wonder if Atwood knew she was writing an enduring classic. A “Lord of the Flies” if you will. I probably won’t read it again, but I encourage you to. It is a flawless horror. Don’t be surprised if you avoid men for the next few weeks. I’ve certainly tried to stay away from mirrors.

4 out of 4 stars.

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