23 January 2010

Book Review: The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood


The Handmaid’s Tale
Margaret Atwood

I first read The Handmaid’s Tale sometime in college in the late 1980s. After about 20 years of recommending it, I have been thinking maybe I should read it again to make sure I would still think it recommendation-worthy. Although given my pro-Atwood bias it seemed unlikely I would change my tune. My husband (at my urging) brought The Handmaid’s Tale along with him on our trip to Thailand and Cambodia. I casually picked it up just to remind myself what he was going to be reading and suddenly found myself drawn in. And not surprisingly I enjoyed reading it again, remembering things I had forgotten and noticing new details. Some of the themes may be slightly dated, but the story is still very compelling.

The brilliant thing about Margaret Atwood’s speculative fiction is that she is such a master of language that she can create a new world without the descriptions seeming forced. The details of her dystopias just unfold as part of the narrative. There are none of those klutzy moments like those found in the works of lesser writers. Those writers who, like an old fashioned opera singer who has no sense of drama and who can’t sing and act at the same time, walks to the middle of the stage plants his/her feet, faces forward and sings the whole damn aria like they were giving a recital. Although, having said that, I must admit that Atwood does get a little cutesy when she applies proper nouns to some of her made up people, places, and things like she did in Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood.

My biggest problem with The Handmaid’s Tale is the same issue I had when I read it 20 years ago. The ending feels too frivolous to me. I think the story is quite devastating. It just seems wrong to end on a humorous note. No doubt Atwood is satirizing academia and academic conferences, but the emotional effect is a little jarring for me.

But none of the quibbles really matter. The book, like Atwood herself, is brilliant. And I am now contemplating a re-read of all of her fiction. And to those Canadians who may think Atwood overexposed, over-praised and self-important (I’ve read your blogs…), for many of us fans who aren’t exposed to Atwood as a National Treasure, the woman is a goddess.

9 comments:

  1. This was my first read of 2010, and I really enjoyed it. It was also the first book I read on my new Kindle (LOL). Plan to read several more of Atwood's books in 2010.

    BTW...Thomas, I just can't get over the detail and how absolutely marvelous the photos of ypur trip were. Honestly, part of me felt like I was there touring Asia as well. So Many Thanks

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  2. I have had this on my shelf for so long but have never read it. I am going to try this year to do so! Thanks for the great review- so glad you still enjoyed it.

    PS- I was in Thailand & Cambodia over Christmas and New Year's 08-09. I loved it- your pictures brought it all back!

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  3. One of my favourite authors and one of my favourite books, great thoughts from you on this. I had forgotten the ending, maybe I need a re-read!

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  4. "The brilliant thing about Margaret Atwood’s speculative fiction is that she is such a master of language that she can create a new world without the descriptions seeming forced"-very well put-she just places us in the world and it works-I really liked your pics of the carvings in Cambodia-I was there about 5 years ago-i have a pic of a battle scene blown up and on my walls

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  5. Yes there are no distressing 'and this is how the world got like this' info dumps in her work. Isn't she wonderful? And she's a big supporter of wildlife charities now so even more reason to champion her.

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  6. Diane: That is a good strong start to your reading year. Do you like other Atwood? My husband gets most of the photo credits.

    Aarti: This one is soooo perfect for the Women Unbound challenge. But then I would think that about all Atwood books.

    Simon: I had forgotten some of the middle bits (like the visit to the nightclub) but I have never forgotten my problem with the ending.

    Mel: I agree, Cambodia is really amazing.

    Jodie: Exactly. Even some writers of regular (non-speculative)fiction have trouble not doing the "here's how we got here dump".

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  7. Thomas, I read this a few times and most recently when I was pregnant with Esmé. Wasn't sure I wanted to read it being pregnant and all but loved it just as much. Loaned it to my cousin to read who happened to be pregnant the same time as I was, and she hated it.

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  8. Rose: I can only imagine how being pregnant (or even being capable of it) could give one a different perspective on the book. Have you read other Atwood novels?

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  9. Thanks for your link-I've added to my post. I would imagine that reading this in a place like Thailand or Cambodia would lend a whole other level to this story.

    I hear what you're saying about the ending, but I think it's a pretty accurate portrayal. Offred's story is devastating, and maybe she helped change the world and maybe she didn't; but, either way, the world moved on.

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