Offred is a Handmaid in the Republic of Gilead. She may leave the home of the Commander and his wife once a day to walk to food markets whose signs are now pictures instead of words because women are no longer allowed to read. She must lie on her back once a month and pray that the Commander makes her pregnant, because in an age of declining births, Offred and the other Handmaids are valued only if their ovaries are viable. Offred can remember the years before, when she lived and made love with her husband, Luke; when she played with and protected her daughter; when she had a job, money of her own, and access to knowledge. But all of that is gone now…
Obviously, The Handmaid’s Tale is not YA. But it was the book of the month (for February, whoops) for a book club I’m in so I read it.
I went into the book, with surprisingly little knowledge of the story, other than that it was required reading in a high school class I wasn’t in, that people love it, and it is dystopia in the vein of Brave New World (which I LOVE) that messed people up. So, obviously, I was hyped to start it.
I think I made it 100 pages into the book, all the while saying “oh my god this is great,” before I tried to explain it to my husband and finally read the dust jacket. I probably should have read it before I started, because I was somewhat lost but it was so good that I didn’t care.
Atwood does a masterful job of executing the unreliable narrator – Offred clearly is just on the line between insane and sane, while clinging to what sanity she has left. She takes us through the story in a disjointed and withdrawn way, which makes a lot of sense for a woman as traumatized by a revolution by the fanatical religious right.
From an actual prose perspective, there were times that I found it very odd, because I am not used to dialogue not being marked by quotations and that it switches tenses repeatedly. But given revelations at the end, it makes more sense. It’s a brilliant exercise in the English language as well as a mental exercise in what happens when a society decides to subjugate women to the fullest extent.
One aspect I appreciated was the fact that Offred remembers the time before this dystopic society. She remembers what it was like to live our lives before she loses everything. Most dystopia I’ve ever read is set well after things have changed. It’s a message I believe never loses relevance to the world we inhabit.
In the current political climate, reading this book for the first time was terrifying and felt like I could be Offred at any moment. She’s an anywoman or everywoman. She’s you and me and it’s scary. But it’s a story that helps me remember that art is a powerful thing and we all need to read and write our stories and shape the world as we wish it to be.