Review: The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

The Handmaid's Tale
The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The hype around this book gave me high expectations, instead, I spent the book waiting for something interesting to happen only to be left bored and disappointed.

Pros:

– The idea that everything that happened to women in the book has, in some time and culture, actually happened stuck with me
– Atwood’s way of using the final chapter as a history lesson was a brilliant way to finally get some answers but in my view, even this didn’t go far enough to give more depth into this murky world Atwood created
– This book is a great one to discuss, regardless of your own opinion on it, you can pretty much guarantee it’ll provoke a good debate in one way or another if you bring it up in conversation. Part of this is thanks to its insane popularity at the moment (helped by the Hulu adaptation that’s recently been aired) and partly because the book’s plot points, though presented in an extreme way in the book, are a good vehicle to talk about feminism, politics and religion.

Cons:
– The way the world switched from familiarly liberal to radically misogynist felt wholly unbelievable without any explanations as to what changed
– Similar to the above point, the book relies on constant guesswork to keep up suspense but in my view, it never delivers
– Atwood’s writing style and the use of an unreliable narrator (something that I always find irritating in any book) doesn’t make this easy reading. It’s not that the ideas or language is complex but the book itself is confusing and leaves the reader constantly trying to figure out the rules in this strange world.

First of all let me just say that I’m all too aware of the heated debates on this book, especially when someone doesn’t leave a favourable review. In fact, this initially put me off writing a review at all when the book is clearly not meant to be enjoyable for a general reader but instead is meant to be a social commentary that needs deep analysis before it really becomes interesting. After some thought, I came back to the reason I review books in the first place – if in 10 years time someone asks me about the book, I’ll need some help from past-me to remember the plot and my own thoughts on it straight after reading. And y’know, books are wonderful.

So, the book. My biggest irritation with The Handmaid’s Tale wasn’t actually the book at all but the hype surrounding it. This book is probably the one that’s been recommended to me the most by friends knowing my interests in history, politics and gender. For me though, it just didn’t deliver on any of the expectation and had I read this book without knowing its reception, I probably would’ve been apathetic to the whole thing and it would’ve ended up on its way to a charity shop or shoved in the back of a cupboard to be forgotten about.

Hype aside, the impression that I had after reading this book is that it’s main and best purpose is to be used as a conversation piece – don’t make the mistake of thinking that it’s a good book to read on a lazy afternoon as some light entertainment because it certainly doesn’t fit that category. Atwood’s fictional world isn’t absorbing and isn’t believable, despite the passionate fans constantly reminding reviewers who say this that all of the ways in which women are treated in the book are historically accurate to some culture or another. That may be the case but thrown together in a jumble of dystopian extreme misogyny means that, without the context of the historical elements, they lose a lot of their meaning and become a ‘everyone hates women’ statement rather than an insightful analysis of why/how they occurred, why they were unfair, how they were received, and how similar mistakes can be prevented in the future.

That being said, I found the final chapter a solid conclusion to such an ambiguous storyline and enjoyed Atwood’s commentary on how history is taught. It’s difficult to explain this without spoilers but as a history student, I found it a refreshing reminder of the gap between what is formally taught and the experienced realities of the historical actors.

All in all, I would encourage readers to open this book with a far more open mind than I did and to dismiss the hype surrounding it until you’ve read it for yourself and processed your own thoughts. As I said before, it’s not a book to read for its entertainment value that has a strong political message which is the mistaken impression I had got from friends and reviews, instead it’s a political book aimed at provoking discussion points and it’s the way it’s written makes that quite obvious from the beginning. Personally, I far prefer a book that is both entertaining and political or, at least if it’s political only, to be formally so as the guesswork involved in analysing The Handmaid’s Tale can be incredibly frustrating.

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