Margaret Atwood’s nightmarish story of a totalitarian future will leave you very unsettled.
In a world where radiation has caused much of the population to become infertile, a totalitarian regime has changed everyone’s way of life. Offred is a handmaid, she is sent to live with a Commander and his wife, in the hope that she will bring them a child. She must endure ritualistic ceremonies and pray that the Commander will make her pregnant. If she produces a healthy child she will be safe, not banished to the colonies and deemed “unwoman.” Littered with flashbacks to “the time before” we see Offred’s past and how much of that is now gone.
I read this book as part of a science fiction module at university, and it blew me away. It’s the sort of book I’m still thinking about and still turning over in my head even though I finished it a while ago. It’s definitely a book everyone should read in their lifetime. The writing is incredible, told in a first person narration style, we get an intimate look at Offred’s life – we do not know her actual name, each handmaid takes the name of their commander Ofglen, Ofwarren. Their lives are controlled down to the minutest detail. One of the interesting things that really struck me about the novel is how believable it all is, this horrifying, nightmare could actually happen – in fact Atwood herself said that she didn’t put anything into the story that had not already happened somewhere in the world. That gives me a shiver down my spine, the idea that our world could so easily be turned upside down. Throughout the book Offred references the past, the small things that change that at first you don’t really bother about, the the loss of jobs for women, the controlling of their money and slowly but surely the complete destruction of the way everything once was.
There are so many interesting characters in this novel. If I had time I would go into immense detail about them all, but I don’t want to spoil the story. I found the Commander and his wife extremely interesting. The Commander who asks Offred to play Scrabble with him and complains that “men have nothing to do.” The hard, unforgiving Serena Joy, the commander’s wife, formerly an activist for women to stay in the home, who unfortunately got her wish and then some. One of my favourites has got to Moira, Offred’s best friend from the time before, we catch snippets of her through the story, and her inherent will to survive is astounding.
The “Historical Notes” which end the novel is a particularly interesting chapter, provided as a lecture in the future, in which a group of scholars are discussing Gilead – though they are not there to judge, simply to uncover the truth behind the regime – is such an ironic, satirical chapter that it definitely adds to Atwood’s wonderful, quirky style. I’ve spoken to a few people who have read other Atwood novels, and they all come highly recommended, I can’t wait to sink my teeth into another one of her wonderful, unusual novels.