I received something of a shock on reading this. A yellow-tinged paperback that’s been on my bookshelf for close on 30 years – and I discovered that in spite of assumptions on my part, I’d never actually read it! So that’s now been redressed.
A dystopian future where religious fundamentalism has destroyed the infrastructure of the US – or at least a part. But Atwood writes not about jihads or intifadas. Instead, the Republic of Gilead and all its repressive might appears to have come about as a result of sectarian Christian wars and the declaration of a State of Emergency following the assassination of the President and most of Congress.
A totalitarian patriarchal theocracy is now in place – and, in Gilead, the bodies of women are controlled for political purposes. Reported nuclear and chemical spillage has resulted in increased sterility: birth and children of the future are paramount. As a handmaid, Offred, our narrator, has one function: to breed.
Offred is provided for – shelter, food. But, like all women in Gilead, she is denied access to reading material, conversation, personal items, love, hope. Bored, she inevitably slips back into memories – of her partner, Luke, and her daughter – of the time before marshall law. But she also observes the present – the suspension of civil rights, the executions of undesirables (pro-abortionists, Quakers), the everyday lives of women (and men) reduced to impersonal roles ‘for the greater good.’
The Handmaid’s Tale was published in 1985 during the Reagan era of ‘old values’, conservatism and the genesis of the Christian right as a political force. At the same time, relations with the Soviet Union were at a dangerous low, people were panicked by HIV/AIDS, nuclear power and the rise of a militant Islam.
Cold and matter of fact in style and language, Attwood’s novel is compelling yet prophetically terrifying.
Shortlisted for the 1986 Booker Prize, The Handmaid’s Tale lost out to Kingsley Amis and The Old Devils.