The Handmaid's Tale - Margaret Atwood

Not exactly a light read. As dystopics go, it's rather good. I suppose 1984 is the normal comparison, so I'll start with that. The setting is a totalitarian state, but based around a weaker, regressive government, with much less in the way of technology. It's also actually much more hopeful - the main character isn't actually crushed by the system. The main thing, though, is that it's all feministy.

Specifically, the set-up is a world where fertility has dropped massively. The fundamentalist government has subjugated women, and the highest officials with infertile wives are assigned, ahem, handmaids. It's a very effective plot structure, in that it really does make you think how brittle women's rights may be and what could happen in dire situations. It's rather effective there, but I'm not exactly best qualified to discuss it.

So, what else is there to this book? Quite a lot. The writing style itself is great. There's a mixture of an articulate rendering of the protagonist's internal thoughts and vivid visual description. This is not a grey dystopia. There are also other themes. The religious fundamentalist state brings to mind Middle-Eastern theocracies, as well as the dangers of Christian fundamentalism in America. Also, unlike 1984, the world has not always been fascist, and in fact it's only been like this for a few years. This could have been a great strength of the book - showing off the slippery slope, and generating a more credible world.

Hoewever, this is one of a few of the weaknesses of the book. I don't find it a convincing transition. The mysterious drop in fertility is plausible enough, as is a huge public reaction, but this leading to a well-organised take-over of the USA by a previously unknown group apparently without coordination from the military, and without noticable resistance? Hmmm. The lead character keeps randomly seeing people she knows in a country of millions. In a population where there's an apparent severe shortage of fertile women, the rather low-intensity, backwards approach taken by the government seems nonsensical, if they're taking these kinds of drastic measure.

I found it difficult to suspend disbelief fully for this novel, but it's a close thing, and the pacing as I read it kept me from noticing too much. I found the continual tension and doom-laden atmosphere reminiscent of The Catcher in the Rye, and it provided the momentum to the book.

I thought the open ending to the novel proper to be very effective, but this is then closed down by the pseudo-historical note from a history conference hundreds of years later. The note's a neat trick to explore the novel's themes further, and generally let the author play, but I don't honestly think it really added much.

I'm probably sounding rather negative about this, since I've focussed on the weaknesses, but it's actually rather good. It has weaknesses, but isn't fundamentally flawed, and it very effectively explores topics other novels rarely reach.

Posted 2008-01-16.