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The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood

By Genny (also Rusty) | Books | April 9, 2009 |

By Genny (also Rusty) | Books | April 9, 2009 |

The whole time I was reading The Handmaid’s Tale I had a vague sense of dread which grew into panic near the end. I’m sure some find hope in the incredibly vague and inconclusive ending, but I didn’t. There was nothing in that book that would lead me to believe that there was a happy ending out there for Offred or any of the other characters for that matter.

The world presented in The Handmaid’s Tale is a world where minor difficulties have been eliminated through implementation of a shadowy theocratic governmental system that puts life back to the middle ages, with several key differences; all money is processed through a networked computer system, and widespread infertility has led affluent couples to bring “handmaids” in to conceive and bear children. The book follows the story of Offred’s present as a handmaid in the home of a couple called Serena Joy and The Commander, while also progressing through her memories of her life before the theocratic take-over and the details of her training as a handmaid. This interweaving of the storyline is effective because all of the facets are compelling, as well as being overwhelmingly depressing.

As the story of the “present” in the novel progresses, Offred (and the reader) learn that more people bend the rules of the theocracy, even the ones who helped to put it in place. Perhaps it is this knowledge that leads Offred to be increasingly reckless with her actions and behaviors, and in the end there is the strong possibility that her recklessness has cost her her life, while most of the others who bent the rules as well remain alive (or at the very least unaccounted for). Even the people who fought the hardest for the return to “simple values” refuse to live by them, and that blatant and uncomprehending hypocrisy is part of why I can’t believe that the story ends well for Offred.

It is also interesting to note that of all the apocalypse/death of society books I’ve read, the two that have been written by women (this and Children of Men by P.D James) revolve around the idea of universal or at least increasingly common infertility. The idea that the death of mankind will come not with a bang, but with a kind of slow fade out of humanity is somehow more terrifying than widespread disaster. People survive disasters, people rebuild, there are always people who are immune to disease. The idea that we will very slowly lose the ability to create more people is so much more final and irreversible, not as flashy as nuclear destruction or global epidemic but almost worse to contemplate.

You can also get cosmetic tips from Genny (also Rusty) at her blog.

This review is part of the Cannonball Read series. Details are here and the growing number of participants and their blogs are here. And check here for more of Genny’s reviews.

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