>> Saturday, July 07, 2012
In the world of the near future, who will control women's bodies?This is a 1986 book, but set a few years in the future. There have been big changes in those few years, and the US has become a theocracy, where women's bodies belong to the State and their childbearing capabilities are efficiently and systematically managed. Women of childbearing age, like our narrator, Offred, are farmed out to the elite.
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 only valued if their ovaries are viable.
Offred can remember the days 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....
This is a harrowing and terrifying read, but it was also excellent. It might have been written over 25 years ago, but it is scarily relevant. Atwood's vision of what had been happening before the revolution and the making of Gilead has quite a few elements that are definitely recognisable as the way our own world could potentially go. There's the environmental disasters (although the ones in the book are the 70s/80s-style water pollution and nuclear contamination kind of thing, rather than climate change), the increasing pornification of culture (with the easy access given by the internet, it's, if anything, more accessible these days - there's a whole generation of young men growing up with a mental image of the desirable woman who's got no body hair and pneumatic breasts and who'll engage in anal sex at the drop of a hat). I thought the fact that Atwood didn't portray the previous society as an utopia made her vision of the future much more believable.
Part of what makes it all especially awful it's that because it takes place so soon after the establishment of the new system, Offred can still remember what it was like before, when she had all those rights she didn't particularly value. The most chilling scenes for me were the ones told in flashback, when we see the beginning of the end, when rights started being taken away from women. The impotence, the disbelief that this could be happening, the sneaking suspicion that Offred's husband is not quite as appalled as he should be, all those hit you hard. In my case, even harder than what the world then turns into
There is only one element I thought wasn't great about this book. I had mixed feelings about how it becomes clear, both to us and to Offred, that her commander and many of the top elite aren't as devout as they appear, and are in fact quite corrupt and don't really believe in the doctrine they're preaching. Don't get me wrong, that was very believable, and it gave rise to some fantastic scenes (think Scrabble!), but I thought they would have all been even scarier if they had been true believers. Eh, well.
Finally, on that post-script. I heard an interview with Margaret Atwood not too long ago, and she spoke about the post-script being about bringing in some optimism, showing that Gilead was, indeed, gone, and also giving us some overview about what had happened, what the rationale had been, because Offred had such a narrow range of observation. She also spoke of the importance of recording women's history. I got all that, but to me, the main thing that struck me was the contrast between the detached academic tone, the little jokes the historians made about the events, and what we'd just been reading, the desperation and horror of actually living in that time.
Hmm, rereading what I just wrote, it's a very disjointed review, more random thoughts than a real review. Oh, well.
MY GRADE: An A-.