Here’s another book I love, and one I’ve read many times. This month I started with some difficult books but finally remembered to reach for the tried-and-true, since February is hard enough without reading emotionally draining books.
I guess this one could be seen as a difficult book, given that it’s a dystopian story about one woman’s experience in a repressive religious society in which women are severely oppressed based on their gender, while the country is at war on the outside, and controlled by a secret police on the inside.
But Atwood’s writing is so amazingly pure and clear. It is uncluttered, and yet somehow attends meticulously to detail. The way her protagonists view and think about the world around them is so real and recognisable that it is sometimes startling. There are very few of her books that I do not love (Alias Grace is one of those, though).
The protagonist of this book is categorised as a Handmaid, a class of women who are valued only for their potential ability to bear “viable” children. The story is told from her perspective and is thus a partial and fragmented view of the Republic of Gilead in which she lives. Every time I read this book, I enjoy the slow unfolding of the story, the way each new event or flashback tells us more about how this society is set up. I like how Atwood’s understated style makes the most awful things seem inevitable and even normal.
Writing that last line made me think how it’s sometimes as if her protagonists are almost in a state of dissociation, or how the writing style allows the reader to be in a kind of suspended state, at a bit of a remove from the story, as if there is a cushion between the protagonist / reader and the horrible things that happen. The way pragmatism and practicality and “making the best of it” are ways to kind of absorb the bad things that happen without really integrating them. I don’t know. Maybe I’m overthinking this. But the idea came to me that maybe one of the reasons I like Atwood’s writing style is precisely for this kind of dissociated feeling, because that’s a state I enter into a lot in my own life. It is a familiar feeling, that life-at-a-remove state that allows me to get up and shower and walk the dogs and drive to work even when way inside I am screaming. That curtain or cotton or rippled glass between me and the world that lets me keep going.
And in fact, in this book, the Handmaid protagonist spends a lot of time at her window watching the world through a thin white curtain. And it feels very familiar.
It’s a really great story, kind of a cautionary tale for what could happen if the racist and sexist and classist and heterosexist trends in the Western world continue. The Republic of Gilead is white and “Christian” and heterosexual and patriarchal and relentlessly punitive of difference or dissent. In Atwood’s hands, this story is understated and chilling.
The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood. 1985.