Handmaid’s Tale, The

by Margaret Atwood


This was a really, really, good book. Almost three “really’s,” but not quite. This is my second Atwood novel, although Oryx and Crake was so long ago that I don’t remember it well. I certainly don’t remember it being this poetic. Atwood can turn such a phrase as to depress me as an aspiring writer. I read it and think, “No matter how hard I try, I will never be that talented.” The writer who most exemplifies this for me is John Fante (specifically Ask the Dust). Others that arouse the same feeling in me are Cormac McCarthy and José Saramago.

In other words, Atwood shares good company, in my esteem at least. Here’s a good example from p.51:

The knock would come at the door; I’d open, with relief, desire. He was so momentary, so condensed. And yet there seemed no end to him. We would lie in those afternoon beds, afterward, hands on each other, talking it over. Possible, impossible. What could be done? We thought we had such problems. How were we to know we were happy?

So many times she pens this last line to a paragraph that so perfectly clinches it that it exalts everything that came just before.

In looking back over the passages I marked as favorites, it stands out to me that the vast majority of the time I was impressed, it was by her observations (in conjunction with their lyrical expression). She has a talent for noticing the smallest details and pondering them in a way that makes it both intuitive and completely original — what I imagine is a very difficult combination to achieve. Whether describing a person’s pose or offering a brief aside on the significant sameness of dish towels in the new society, if you take the time to consider them, her observations are usually fascinating. Here’s probably my favorite example from p.191:

Night falls. Or has fallen. Why is it that night falls, instead of rising, like the dawn? Yet if you look east, at sunset, you can see night rising, not falling; darkness lifting into the sky, up from the horizon, like a black sun behind cloud cover. Like smoke from an unseen fire, a line of fire just below the horizon, brushfire or a burning city. Maybe night falls because it’s heavy, a thick curtain pulled up over the eyes. Wool blanket. I wish I could see in the dark, better than I do.

Of course, the danger as a writer of getting too caught up in these details is that they can bog down the narrative. And “Handmaid” does suffer from that at times. Atwood cleverly attempts to blame her flighty narrator for these tangents, which in some ways works. But the overall result is that you have a novel where not much happens. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but I did find myself wishing for more action at times.

In other words, at some point the descriptions and observations begin to detract not only from the novel but from themselves. If you are bombarded by such passages every page or two, it’s very difficult to pay attention to all of them. I guess I’m trying to say that her style, at times, is overwrought. The (over)abundance of commas would be another exhibit in this argument.

At the same time, however, I absolutely love her choice of perspective and the way it allows her to slowly reveal the horrors that make up Gilead. Using 1st person present gives it both an immediacy and a plausible limitation of knowledge. The scattershot, episodic nature of the story makes total sense when considering how Offred must feel as she narrates, and the “Historical Notes” at the end is brilliant not only for its content and contextualization but even tonally.

But however well-done and consistent, the ending still seems a little like a cop-out. (SPOILER ———> If Offred is in safety and narrating the tale verbally on a tape recorder, there’s no reason she couldn’t have disclosed exactly how she escaped and what happened to her up to the point of narration.)

So overall it’s two “really’s.” It makes me want to re-read “Oryx” and maybe even venture into her non sci-fi. I’m sort of embarrassed it took me this long to read it, but I’m happy to say it totally met my long-stewing expectations.

Original Review


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