Great book, but I feel I read it at the wrong time. Synopsis: Offred is a sex slave, pretty much. She tells her story as a Handmaid, a live-in mistress of sorts for high-level Commanders whose Wives are unable to bear children. The story takes place in Gilead, a dystopian United States which has been turned upside down through internal plots (including the murder of the entire congress) and is now governed by an ultra-conservative, highly militarized oppressive government. A theocracy. In a context of widespread environmental pollution and a steep decline in fertility (though not described in detail), the government has stripped women of all rights, starting with the right to hold property and eventually even their names. They can no longer read or write, as it is considered dangerous, and are reduced to specific roles within a biblically-validated structure allegedly aimed at increasing population rates. The Marthas cook and wear green robes, the Wives wear blue, and the Handmaids wear bright red dresses with white nun-like “wings” over their heads. A bit like Hester Prynne, but without the shaming. The narrator, Offred, is just trying to get by. She is no hero, she’s just trying to keep her head above water.
“Humanity is so adaptable, my mother would say. Truly amazing, what people can get used to, as long as there are a few compensations.”
“We thought we had such problems. How were we to know we were happy?”
I have mixed feelings about this book. It is a great book, but I’m sure I would have enjoyed it a lot more if I had read it maybe 12 or 15 years ago. I couldn’t help but compare it to Brave New World and 1984, (the little bits and pieces I can still recall from that long ago period called high school English). Plus I feel tainted by everything that has come after it. I kept thinking of Alfonso Cuaron’s “Children of Men” and at times even of The Hunger Games, which was intended as a sort of memoir of the aftermath of war and the horrible emotional scars it leaves behind. I’m sure that this book influenced those two and a number of other works. A lot of the topics remain relevant: oppression, religious zeal, women’s rights… At times it is like reading about Venezuela or Boko Haram in the news, or even about the recent Charlie Hebdo events. But it is not as believable as the more recent Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart.
I did enjoy very much the way it is written. Atwood is definitely a master of her craft. We are dumped in the middle of the current oppressive Gilead, and little by little we are given a glance of what may have happened, just enough to speculate. Slowly we find out how it all came to be. Though I may not recommend it left and right, I will definitely look for more Atwood books.