Book Review: The Handmaid's Tale

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Title: The Handmaid's Tale
Author: Margaret Atwood
Publisher: Vintage (19 September 1996)
Genre: Contemporary Fiction
Price: Rs. 259 on Amazon
Pages: 320

I only heard of this book when its series won big at the Emmys. When many people praised this book on social media and since the book was written as a response to second wave feminism, I was intrigued and placed an order for it. It is a fairly short book and I read it in three sittings.

The Handmaid’s Tale's setup is in Gilead, formed between the borders of what was formerly the United States Of America. In Gilead, only the men hold power. Be it political, economical or social. The women are only seen as objects of procreation and that is pushed on them as the only expectation from them. They are unable to do anything else, be it have jobs or have a bank account or even read. Since the government has been overthrown, a military dictatorship is formed in order to protect the people from Islamic terrorism.

This dystopian society is polluted to the core thanks to the radioactive waste, rendering most of the people infertile. While the men in Gilead are expected to behave macho and suppress their emotions, the women are reduced to second citizens with their roles divided. All the house keeping women are called Marthas, the propagandists are called Aunts, the infertile spouses of the military men are called Wives and the socially inferior women who still have a chance of reproducing, are called Handmaids. Women who choose not to be either are called UnWomen. These UnWomen are forced to work on the grounds clearing out the radioactive waste and later die of poisoning or a slow death.

Offred is a handmaid whose name literally translates to Of Fred, Fred is the Commander whose child she is expected to bear. Her real name is never mentioned and the story is narrated by her. She had a peaceful life earlier, with a job, a husband and a daughter. After a failed attempt to escape to Canada with her family, she is forced to become a handmaid and thrown into the hands of the government trained Aunts. Aunt Lydia is the one in charge of Offred and she offers no kindness. The other person who holds some importance in Offred's life is Ofglen, her shopping partner. Through Ofglen, Offred learns about Mayday, an underground network working to overthrow the Republic of Gilead. Soon, Ofglen disappears.

Commander Fred is a high-ranking official and he is expected to only have contact with Offred during the "cermony", where he is expected to impregnate her while having his wife, Serena Joy in the same bed. Serena Joy hates Offred for having to share her husband with her. When Offred is unable to get pregnant with Fred's child, Serena helps her with an alternative. But soon enough, Commander Fred tries to create a relationship between him and Offred away from the prying eyes of his wife. He uses Nick, his chauffeur, to send signals to Offred on and off. Strangely enough, Offred cooperates. Offred also develops a relationship with Nick, finally discovering the fact that she actually enjoys sex with him. Caught between Fred and Nick and still enveloped with the memories of her husband, The Handmaid's Tale moves forward and finally ends unexpectedly.

I'm going to be honest here, I did not enjoy the writing at all. The writing is pretty barren and monotonous. I know the idea was to show the repetitive and monotonous lives of the handmaids, but having to read their routine again and again and again bored me. The lack of dialogue is a major set-back too. There are very few dialogues in the book and this makes the writing feel more chunky and tedious. While the concept is heartbreaking and well thought out, its execution did not work for me. You will need to have a heart of stone to not feel for Offred, but after a certain point, her confused state of mind gets to you. She clearly is just an object in the hands of two men and many women. While her helplessness evokes good enough emotions, the plot that leads nowhere erodes it. The open ending felt bleak and uncertain too.

Probably, the show would be better thanks to the inclusion of dialogue, but the book really falls short of too many things. While the book touches upon the concept of feminism and the oppression of women by men and other women, the story does not lift from this point. Some verses stay with you for a while, but later blur out. While the pain and the mental and physical turmoil of the protagonist is shown well, a certain part of it remains unexplored. I would also have liked to read more of Offred's past and what happened to her family once she was captured. Too many uncertainties is what ruins this otherwise good book.


Verdict: This book will definitely stir something inside you thanks to a brilliant concept and setting. Sadly, it will not last long.

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars.

9 comments:

  1. Thanks for this review, Soumya. I was leaning towards the adaptation anyway, but wasn't sure I did not want to read the book first. Your review makes my decision easy. Descriptive prose, no dialogues, and open ending - I'll definitely check out the adaptation.

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    1. I'm glad you are going for the adaptation, Shantala. That would make more sense I'm sure.

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  2. This is definitely not the kind of book I can ever read. The story line is scary... It will definitely haunt me for life. Love your honest review 👌

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    1. The story line is actually good, it is the writing that troubled me. But if you aren't the one for poignant reads, let this be.

      Thanks, Raj!

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  3. I didn't face the same issue about the writing style. In the beginning, yes, it did feel a bit awkward having to read broken up sentences and random musings, but I did end up highlighting a few of my favourite quotes from the book too!

    The story was distinctly captivating, but yes, I too wanted to know more about Offred's backstory. And what happened in the end. Who exactly were those people who took her away, friend or foe? The fact that the book was fashioned in the form of diary entries obviously made it impossible to disclose what happened in the end, and the Historical Notes summarized the entire story and made it more confusing and shocking at the same time.

    I have high hopes from the Netflix version of Alias Grace, and I hope to read the book before I watch the series! Are you planning to read / watch it?

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    1. Some verses were good, can't deny that. But somehow they didn't last in my mind for long. Yes, the notes did bother me too and I gave up on it halfway. The book disappointed me enough.

      I've only heard of Alias Grace and googled it up to check the blurb. While the inclusion of the murders sounds interesting, I'm still worried about the writing style. Can you be a darling and let me know how it is once you finish reading the book? After that I'll watch the series. For now, I'm think of starting the series for this one. I know it is short and I really want to see how its made.

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  4. Thanks for the in-depth review. The premise does seem interesting but looks like the narration is not good enough. I would skip this one.

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    1. You're welcome, Rachna. The narration is very bothersome in this one. Good decision, watch the adaptation if needed.

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  5. From your review, Soumya, I should say, I'd give this a miss. Thanks for sharing the honest review here. It sure helps!

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