Book review: The Handmaid’s Tale | Margaret Atwood

You’ve watched the TV series, and now season two is about to drop. Is it time to read the book? (You’ve asked the wrong person; my answer to this will always be ‘yes’.)

But did you know the book was published over twenty years ago, in 1985, during the height of shoulder pads, the famine in Ethiopia and Live Aid, Mikhail Gorbachev’s leadership of the Soviet Union, and the beginnings of the birth control pill? And that the book won a stack of awards, including the first Arthur C. Clarke Award, and was turned into a film and then an opera, before the current TV series?

But what’s it about? It starts with a young woman, going about her strange daily existence. She wears a red robe and a white hat with wings so that eye contact is hard and she sees only what she needs to see in the world. She sits often, for long stretches, and tells us about the sparse interior of her room. We watch her interact with others in the building—she is demure, does not speak unless spoken to, and is careful to not overstep any boundary. We start to understand some of the costs, should she do so, and when she and a fellow handmaiden walk past a wall in the compound, we learn that the costs are steep.

Her name is now Offred, which means ‘of Fred’, because dispossession is the theme of the book. We learn, in flashes from the past, that she had a partner, Luke, and a daughter, but they were torn from her and Offred knows not of their fate. We learn the hope she keeps alive, through tales she tells herself inside her head, and that these stories keep her going in this dystopian world in which she is seen as nothing more than a vessel.

The book takes a slower, more mysterious journey than the TV series, but the pace eventually quickens. It’s an important read, at any point in history, but especially in the era of #metoo.

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