The Handmaid’s Tale has made its gory entrance on TV screens across the UK every Sunday at 9pm. With the show’s success and it’s sequel, The Testimants, being released on the 10th of September I was grateful to be gifted an audiobook copy by Penguin Random House of The Handmaid’s Tale read predominantly by the actress who plays the protagonist on the big screen: Elizabeth Moss.
With the rise of birth control and infertility the United States is faced with a dwindling population. In the ensured panic a Christian extremist group overthrow Congress and form a new government: Gilead, which treasures the sanctity of life above all over values. Women are valued as mothers foremost and young, working and middle class women suspected of being fertile are commissioned to upper class households as handmaids, their only task to produce a baby by the man of the house for his wife to raise. Gilead claims to be a better and safer society for all women but with the rapid loss of her rights Offred still remembers having a job, money and choices. Dangerously she begins to wonder if, even with the population crisis, she should be viewed as more than just a fertile womb.
“Better never means better for everyone… It always means worse, for some.”
Offred’s character was complex. Desperate to fight back and find her family yet unsure how in the strict Gilead setting, her spirit crushed by the hangings, public displays and Moira’s harrowing tale, she is conflicted for most of the novel. Before Gilead she was a young, middle class woman who went to college, had a simple job, best friend and daughter. Offred’s pre Gilead life resembles that of many modern readers making the gradual persecution her backstory explains all the more personal. Her fearful narrative is also congenial, her fear and subtle defiances being more realistic than protagonists presented in many dystopian novels who offer unobtainable bravery and unrealistic abilities. The choice of a first person narrative makes Offred’s fear all the more real and relatability makes Offred a powerful lead. The character development she shows at she gradually decides to fight the system is pinnacle to the story and the journey the reader takes with her.
Gilead’s society slowly unfurls to the reader throughout The Handmaid’s Tale. Written as a diary the narrator assumes her listeners knowledge of her world and the events that led to it, leaving the reader to piece together the history as the tale progresses from minimal details dotted throughout the text. Although occasionally frustrating this innovative world building style creates a unique dystopian that encourages readers to delve into The Handmaid’s Tale with almost an analytical context. Offred’s comparisons to society as she remembers it, which are vague enough to be in the present day as much as the 1980s when the novel was published, are a powerful tool used to express the dynamic and underlying threats Gilead presents. Furthermore, Offred’s diminished world view: confined to one household and one small high street with limited knowledge of the outside filtering through from Gilead sources only, leave both the protagonist and reader guessing the scope of Gilead’s cruelty providing a powerful and haunting atmosphere. The historical notes supplied at the end of the novel supply additional and initially missing information which adds further gravitas to the tale.
“We were the people who were not in the papers. We lived in the blank white spaces at the edges of print.”
Female suffrage is central to The Handmaid’s Tale. The inequalities before Gilead are explored in Offred’s backstory through her mothers feminist views, marching for women’s abortion rights and burning sleazy magazines, and through Moira pointing out the injustices she feels as a lesbian. Our narrator shows little regard for these causes until her rights are slowly removed: her job, her money and finally the rights to her own choices and body. Atwood encourages readers to consider the place of women in a modern society as she explores the depth of Offred’s place in the unnerving Gilead regime, bringing to the readers attention that, despite proclaiming itself as a ‘safer’ society high ranking officials still exploit women.
Using the actress who plays Offred in the TV series was a powerful and haunting tool. Although soft spoken at times her poignant telling was harrowing for any reader to listen to, the novel being told from Offred’s perspective making this choice of narrator even more preeminent. As stated in the fictional historical essay at the end of the novel Offred’s story is recorded on a series of tapes making an audiobook version appropriate. The Audiobook’s cast also includes Amy Landecker, Bradley Witford and Ann Dowd. The transitions between the four narrators is seamless and effective, further embellishing this telling.
The pacing of The Handmaid’s Tale is difficult. The first half is slow and methodical as Offred narrates her daily life as a handmaid: focussing on her shopping trips, the gruesome wall and the fellow maids in her household. This slow beginning sets an earie tone to the novel as the reader slowly realises, from knowledge of Gilead society and the population crisis that rape is central to the handmaid’s cruelty. In the later half of the novel the pacing is quicker when Offred faces disruption from her routine as dangerous choices open up to her. The plot is scarce and subtle, led by small sparks of defiance from Offred and tidbits of information about her past and present. Readers are given time to consider the events slowly as Offred navigates them, her small acts of rebellion giving an atmosphere of dread, the foreboding undertone of how Gilead will react to Offred’s small decisions and rebellious spirit ever present.
The novels writing style was simple yet effective. Told by Offred herself the more gruesome scenes are often depicted with similes and Offred’s accompanying reflections, making powerful images for the reader to ponder. Atwood’s use of simple fact like prose over long and detailed descriptions adds an earie tone to the story as the reader is left guessing at what further detail the unreliable narrative has opted not to share. The fictional essay Atwood chose to end the novel with was unusual and well crafted. The historian’s viewpoint added any context the reader may have been missing and a valuable broader viewpoint, previously only glimpsed from Offred’s narration.
“A rat in a maze is free to go anywhere, as long as it stays inside the maze.”
The Handmaid’s Tale is not for the feint hearted. With it’s dark backdrop our narrator often swears and there are scenes of rape, murder, suicide and rape portrayed. The details aren’t graphic and I wouldn’t class the novel as a horror but any potential reader should keep in mind these trigger warnings. The target audience is adults.
Overall The Handmaid’s Tale is a powerful dystopian. The narrative was harrowing and well written however the pacing slow at first. Although I found the plot unrealistic and suspect it’s more akin to an exaggeration than a foretelling the message is effectively given and remains relevant to readers today.