So after the depressing dystopian novel 1984, what better to lighten my spirits than leaping with a hop, skip and a jump into, er, the depressing dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale? In this book, we follow Offred, who has been separated from her husband and daughter, and is kept as a concubine because she is known to be fertile.
It was quite odd reading these two in tandem, as they have obvious similarities. A rebellious main character, incorporated into a totalitarian regime, unable to share their thoughts with anyone around them. Sex allowed only for breeding purposes. Endless propaganda. Language control. Underground movements that may or may not exist. Both novels also have chapters that suggest that the regime in question was eventually toppled – although Atwood’s is much more unequivocal than Orwell.
For me, though, The Handmaid’s Tale has so much more soul. It’s less about the politics, more about the people. Offred’s story is so much more human – perhaps because she can so clearly remember the days before the regime took hold. Whilst her fate is ambiguous, you are left with a feeling of hope that she may have escaped and made her way to something better. And what woman can read the ‘ceremony’ scenes, depicting a bizarre sexual ritual featuring Offred, the Commander and the Commander’s wife, without imagining herself in either of the other womens’ places and cringing with horror?
I absolutely love Atwood’s writing, and the more I read about her, the more I love Atwood herself. People don’t know what to do with her, and because a couple of her best known works aren’t about the immediate here and now, and she writes about the environment, then she is thrust into science fiction, and forced to write lengthy essays explaining why she isn’t science fiction, and then defend herself from claims that she looks down on science fiction and won’t align herself with it, when she just doesn’t write it.
Personally I say we need a new genre. It’s called Atwoodian fiction, and to be in that genre you have to be really awesome, and feminist, and brainy, and book bloggers have to have had at least one conversation with their husbands about whether you can name one of their children after you.