Title: The Handmaid’s Tale
Author: Margaret Atwood
2017 Book Challenge Entry: An audiobook
thoughts: I am a very old fashioned person. It took me ages to get a digital camera (If you take the right photo on film, you don’t need to edit!), I resisted getting an e-reader (Why would I want to look at a screen when I’m reading??? I want a book, not a tablet!), and I’m sure I don’t use my phone to it’s fullest capacity. So, audiobooks? Not really my thing. I love podcasts but I see podcasts as a view into a conversation between multiple people. If they are solo podcasts, Lore, You Must Remember This, The Memory Palace, the style of storytelling is so different, that it lends itself to the medium of radio. Books? Really? Just someone reading a book to me? I’m not lazy. I don’t need that.
All that being said, this was an entry I was not really looking forward to. BUT. I kept hearing amazing things about the audio book recording of The Handmaid’s Tale. Given the current political climate and the series being produced on Hulu, the book is experiencing a kind of renaissance. It was one I know a lot of people had to read in high school but due to whatever, I missed that train. So I figured, why not? It’s topical, it’s well known and well reviewed. Claire Danes is pretty bad ass and does the narration. I’ll give it a shot.
You guys. I spent so much time in my car. I would find the longest way to get somewhere just to listen to more of this book. It was incredible. First of all, Claire Danes narration is electric. She infuses the text with an energy that makes it impossible to stop listening. She has a wonderful range of emotion and I was surprised that someone reading aloud to me, an adult, could be so engaging. But really, that wouldn’t mean anything if it wasn’t for the absolutely amazing story. The characters are well drawn and complicated, the use of imagery and color is vivid, and you can feel everything. You can feel the fabric of the clothing, you can feel the heat of the rooms, you can feel the characters breathe and the wind at their backs. When you listen to this book, you are in the presence of a master storyteller.
Atwood weaves a tale that is part science fiction, part dystopian feminist tale, part horror in my opinion, and all dynamic literature. Offred is a Handmaid. She lives in Gilead, a near future dystopian society where women have been stripped of all their independence. They are split into factions based solely on their ability to conceive and have children. If they are deemed healthy enough, they are trained to be Handmaids. They are shipped off to a random couple and subjected to basically being raped once a month in an effort to boost Gilead’s population. They don’t read. They don’t write. They are not given any information about the world they knew before they were Handmaids. The book is told from Offred’s perspective and dives into her experience in the household of housewife Serena Joy and her husband, “The Commander”.
Throughout the book, it is clear that at one point, this world operated much like ours, but a tyrannical leader and a right wing Congress who were faced with massive deaths due to a pointless war decided to change things and snatch away rights from their citizens. Sound familiar? Or at least more probable? It’s eerie how timely the TV series is and as I listened, all I could think was, No way. This couldn’t really happen. Could it? People wouldn’t allow this to happen. Would they? But honestly, look at history. It’s full of governments subjecting their people to awful things “for the greater good”. This book is one of the most terrifying examples of government corruption and assault on human rights that I’ve read, and it’s FICTION!! The real world, if you make the time to keep up on world news, is worse.
Offred finds some solace in her world though. She befriends Nick, the chauffeur and they strike up a kind of symbiotic relationship that serves multiple purposes. She also engages in a strange sort of “affair” with the Commander that is a bit baffling to her. Afraid for what might happen if she refuses his demands of her time, she continues to see him outside of the prerequisite meetings and rituals. She befriends another Handmaid, Ofglen, and discovers that although very underground, a resistance exists, as usually does when people in power press their foot against the necks of the common man. Eventually, she has to swallow fear, or use it as a motivator, to make decisions that could have dire consequences for her future.
I really loved this book. When it was over, I wanted to get a copy and read it for real to see what I could uncover upon experiencing it for a second time. I also immediately wanted to watch the series, although between work and pregnancy, I haven’t made the time or energy for something that intense. I’m told it’s fantastic. But the book. This book was written in the 80s. The 80s. We are still talking about it and it has become very relevant suddenly as we look at a world where women are suddenly not respected by the people who have been hired to represent us. How many steps away from being baby factories are we? How long can we live with this administration and these leaders until just being a woman is a pre-existing condition and results in drastically leveled health care? How long before the girls in public school are split off to learn about sewing and cooking instead of syntax and cosigns? There is nothing wrong with sewing and cooking. I love them both. But I have a choice and freedom is about choice. When we have no choice, we cease to live in a world that is fair and free. For a woman, The Handmaid’s Tale is the ultimate horror story of what happens when those choices are ripped away. It’s absolutely brilliant and I honestly think, especially in these times, everyone should read it.