(Book Review) The Handmaid's Tale

Don't let the bastards grind you down.

The Handmaid's Tale is an acclaimed dystopian novel by Margaret Atwood. Now, I had been looking for a good dystopian novel for quite some time before landing on this book. I was looking for something to match the greatness of 1984, A Brave New World or perhaps Blindness by Saramago. Having stumbled upon it in several 'Best Dystopian Books' lists I decided to give it a try... Turns out that wasn't such a great idea.

Fair warning, there are several spoilers for the book below. I have no idea how the book relates to the Hulu Series, but it is best to assume it includes spoilers for that one too.

You see, the novel deals with a society taken over by religious fundamentalists, where women are demoted to second class citizens, whose only function is to serve the needs of the men. We follow the life of Offred, whose role is that of a Handmaid, which means she is one of the few women left that is capable of childbearing, her job being to give birth to child(s) for the high-level Commanders.

It is an interesting premise to say the least, one that holds promise for a great novel and If I may quote the back cover of the book:

“Atwood takes many trends which exist today and stretches them to their logical and chilling conclusions”

Except that there's nothing logical on how the whole plot is brought about. It feels like the author wanted a certain political climate on her novel in order to make her points heard, but had no idea on how to bring it to fruition and decided to go with lazy half-assed explanations. From a fertility crisis that's not really explained, we only know that it is present, to the rise of our new tyrannical overlords.

As an example, we are given glimpses of Offred's life previous to this catastrophe, during these flashbacks she's a young mother to a small child, living a relatively normal life with her husband Luke. Until suddenly she isn't. Out of nowhere the President and the US Congress are taken out after a mass shooting and some religious fundamentalists (not being intentionally vague here, the only thing we know about them is that they read the bible) take over the government, outlaw the women from working and freeze their bank accounts. This all seems to happen without any sort of backlash from the population, neither from the men nor the women. The assimilation of the new social structure happens way too fast for it to be believable. One also has to wonder whether the society that took over makes sense considering the kind of religious fundamentalists one is to expect in the US.

I found it hard to care about the characters, most fall under a pretty clear pattern of being a victim or an oppressor, none of them experience any real growth, and there's not much happening in the terms of the actual story. In short, it is a world where all the men are out there to victimize the women.

As for the writing itself, Atwood decides to go without quotation marks for most parts of the books, which can be a bit frustrating for some, but frankly I do not mind it (Be prepared for a lot of this if you decided to read Blindness, which I do recommend). There are, however, some passages that seem to hit you out of nowhere, making you doubt whether you are going mad or if that is what she actually wrote.

My only explanation for the praise that this book gets is that people find themselves too aligned with the ideas pushed forward by Atwood that they are afraid to give the book any actual criticism. Sure, it has ideas worth exploring; furthermore, we can all agree that the oppression of women is bad, but that doesn't mean the book should get a free pass for its defects. Distance yourself a bit and it is clear that the plot makes no sense.

You can find the rest of my reviews here. Coil subscribers can continue reading for some interesting quotes.

Continue reading with a Coil membership.