Part review, part commentary, completely spoiler-free, ‘Talking about’ began with my post on Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, and has now evolved into a post format I’m going to use to talk about the classics I read. Today, it’s the turn of a contemporary classic, The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood.
Offred is a Handmaid in The Republic of Gilead, a religious totalitarian state in what was formerly known as the United States. She is placed in the household of The Commander, Fred Waterford – her assigned name, Offred, means ‘of Fred’. She has only one function: to breed. If Offred refuses to enter into sexual servitude to repopulate a devastated world, she will be hanged. Yet even a repressive state cannot eradicate hope and desire. As she recalls her pre-revolution life in flashbacks, Offred must navigate through the terrifying landscape of torture and persecution in the present day, and between two men upon which her future hangs.
Masterfully conceived and executed, this haunting vision of the future places Margaret Atwood at the forefront of dystopian fiction.
Prior to reading this book, I’d heard so much praise about it, to the point where it was put on a pedestal to reign supreme as one of the best pieces dystopian literature has to offer. My friend was raving about the TV adaptation, telling me I needed to watch it, but I always prefer to read the book first, boy, was that a mistake this time around! I disliked the book so much, I have absolutely no intention of watching the series. I’m going to attempt to break down my reading experience with this book, but I’d like your feedback because I feel like I must not have understood something with this book, or something profound occurred, but went right over my head. Interestingly, the person I buddy read this book with also didn’t like it, so it was nice to have someone, throughout the read, who was as disappointed as I was. Side note: I love the cover of my edition!
The first checkpoint in my buddy was up to page 111 [of 307], splitting the book into thirds allowed me to easily decipher my thoughts at each interval – beginning, middle and end. Right from the get-go I wasn’t as blown as I thought I’d be, I largely put that down to ‘the hype’, everything I’d heard about this book likely gave me unrealistic expectations, so I wasn’t too concerned that the first third didn’t grip me straight away, I thought it was just okay.
It was all a bit obscure, intentionally so [I think], I was aware of Offred’s role, but there was very little explanation as to who’s who, and why things are the way they are.
There were also some very bizarre ‘goings on’, that left me thinking WTF, it was all very strange, and I wasn’t entirely sure the point of the book. That should have been the indicator really, 111 pages in and you still don’t understand the point of anything, I should have given up there. Also, it didn’t help that none of the characters endeared themselves to me, likely intentional on the authors part again. Let me know, if you’ve read this one, did you actually like Offred, was the reader suppose to?
Also, something else I found strange, in this dystopia, women have different functions, Offred’s being to breed, and she makes a comment about it being the most desirable role. I don’t know about you, but I’d happily have the function of working in the kitchen, preparing meals, washing up. And if you have read this one, you’ll know about the way in which the breeding occurs, give me a pot and let me get my ass in the kitchen, thank you very much!
Why is the format so ‘chunky’? Monotone, no distinction between the changing timelines, and lack of speech marks made it feel even more like I’m just reading block text, after block text, and wow, what a slow-moving plot! As you can see, I’m now in crisis territory, and at this point I have no one to blame but myself for continuing to read on, especially as I’m someone who loves short, choppy chapters. There were a few tense moments in this section where I felt like I should care about the safety of some of these women, but I did not care, not at all. I think that was due to the fact that I didn’t understand the dystopia they were living in; if I can’t understand the ‘world’, the very idea of the roles the characters have and the oppression is lost on me because I don’t believe in it, I don’t feel angst, anger, any emotion where perhaps I should. If me reading this book was a meme, the caption would read “it was at this point Janel knew she fucked up, she should have just watched the TV adaption.” 😂🙈
It was also at this point, that I began to wonder if I was missing some crucial element of the plot. I found the book really heavy to read, not because of the content, but because of the writing style, I found it really inaccessible, and if this wasn’t a buddy read I wouldn’t have finished the book as quickly as I did. Prior to this book, I buddy read Washington Black by Esi Edugyan with the same person, and it was crazy to compare how accessible and readable that book was, in comparison to this one – worlds apart!
I have nothing. I don’t get it. Nope. Not for me.
Interestingly, I said to my buddy read partner that I wasn’t sure what Atwood wanted to portray, as a political dystopia I think this one failed because I never understood the regime, and that was a huge failing for me. She then explained that in her copy of the book, in the ‘editor’s note’, Atwood states that this book was never meant to be political or religious. This shocked me because I’ve always heard this book mentioned right alongside female-centric political dystopia. I suppose this goes to show, if you have a set idea of a book in your head, and this has been reinforced by ‘the hype’, it’s very difficult to go into a book with a completely open mind. In some ways my experience with this book fell victim to ‘the hype’, hugely so, but I also think the writing style, and the slow-moving plot weren’t for me anyway.
Other than it being a buddy read, there must have been something that propelled me to keep reading on, I just don’t know what. Well, at least I now know the meaning of this well known phrase now:
“Nolite te bastardes carborundorum”
Over to you…
Have you read this one, I’d love to hear your thoughts, did you like it? Equally, have I made you all the more curious to read it to see how you’ll feel about it, or are you now running a mile?
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