A review of The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

Reviewed by Geoff Nelder

The Handmaid’s Tale
by Margaret Atwood
Hardcover: 320 pages, 1 Feb 1993, ISBN-13: 978-0435124090

I looked forward to reading this novel partly because the back-cover blurb says it is … both a superlative exercise in science fiction and a profoundly felt moral story. Margaret Atwood denies any of her work is SF so is it really? Also I know from reading Oryx and Crake that she has a literary style I enjoy – she’s not afraid to break rules and enjoy the written word even if it yanks the reader out of the fictive dream.

As I expected there is plenty of colours, smells, tactile and other senses to propel the reader into believing they are with the main character, even though we never find out her real name, and the actuality of the setting remains a mystery. We know it is about a century in the future and an extreme female-restrictive government is in place in America – or at least that part of the former US. It smacks of what it might be like in an extremist Muslim country today but with different religious overtones and undercurrents.

Much of the writing is what some editors would consider to be authorial narrative intrusion in that Atwood’s favourite concepts crop up, but since they are sometimes mine too, she is forgiven. For instance I often retaliate to right-wingers that their freedoms to do in order to enrich themselves often result in the need for freedoms from being done to by others. In The Handmaid’s Tale this comes over in Two freedoms – to, which is anarchy, and from, which is control. So what does the main character, a girl forced to be a baby-maker to a Commander in a household with a sterile wife, mean by ‘such freedom now seems almost weightless,’ ?

As anticipated there are marvellous literary phrases and sensual Show. Freshly baked bread – yeast – it smells of mothers… a treacherous smell. Not only is Atwood a master of using aromas, she takes it further than most writers to evoke the effect of them on the characters, and so the readers. Example : ‘The room smells of lemon oil, heavy cloth, fading daffodils, the leftover smells of cooking… and of Serena Joy’s perfume: Lily of the Valley (note she names it – so many amateur writers are too vague on aromas)… I breathe it in, thinking I should appreciate it. It’s the scent of prepubescent girls, of the gifts young children used to give to their mothers… the smell of white cotton and white cotton petticoats, of dusting powder, of the innocence of female flesh not yet given over to hairiness and blood. It makes me feel slightly ill, as if I’m in a closed car on a hot muggy day with an older woman wearing too much face powder.’ See? Plenty of sensory Show – and its effects, maybe too much.

We don’t know the main character’s name until over 30 pages in – it’s Offred – she, like others in servitude, are denied their original personal names – and we then discover her age and description. Does it matter to be so late? Yes, because my image of her was shattered. Nevertheless, I felt and cared for Offred and needed to know if she was going to survive any escape attempt, become pregnant, and how her sensibilities coped with seeing daily executions and deprivations. She is a 3D character though some others are clichéd, but not in a bad or obvious way.

My enjoyment of the literary feel of the book and the tension – drew me in and carried me to about a third in, when the plot began to sag with repetition and sameness. It was then I noticed the Atwood literary formula, ie never use one metaphor when two or three will do, in the same paragraph. Her repeated metaphor and simile triples were fun at first then seemed oddly amateur. Eg ‘clipped whispers… more like a telegram, a verbal semaphore. Amputated speech.’ And on the next page: ‘… whisperings, these revelations … improbable, childish even, like something you’d do for fun, like a girl’s club, like secrets at school.’

More amateur it seemed to me was something drummed into us new writers at workshops of what not to do. Offred has to copulate secretly and so she describes it in a rather romantic way, immediately followed by a statement of ‘I made that up, it didn’t happen that way.’ Of course it is the character speaking, not Atwood and yet it felt so much like an unwarranted authorial intrusion. Worse was to follow because after she said how it did happen she says: ‘It didn’t happen that way either. I’m not sure how it happened.’ Of course this is outrageous, or very clever. It niggled me, it might enrapture you.

At the end of the book is an explanatory epilogue of sorts. In the voice of a future history professor, an interpretation of the discovery of the Handmaid’s Tale manuscript is pondered on. To me it doesn’t work at all – very Anne Frank’s Diary style and content but with a laborious feel to it.

I’d recommend The Handmaid’s Tale to those who, like me, is trying to figure Atwood’s style and genres, and for those who collect dystopian futures, but if it leaves you dissatisfied don’t blame me.

About the reviewer: Geoff Nelder lives in rural England within easy cycle rides of the Welsh mountains. One humorous thriller novel, Escaping Reality has been published, and his recent novel is a science fiction mystery, Exit, Pursued by Bee, published by Double Dragon Publishing. Other SF/F novels are hungry to be published following a minor deluge of humour, crime and horror short stories. Geoff is an editor for Adventure Books of Seattle.