The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

A good book but somewhat lacking in urgency.

Set in a dystopian alternate North America, the US as we know it has been subsumed by a new fundamental religious country called Gilead. Due to a declining birth rate, any women who had a child out of a traditional first marriage are designated as handmaidens and are given up to high ranking families as basically a brood mare. This book is the tale of one of those, an unnamed woman whose own child was taken away from her and she was given as a handmaid to a powerful commander and his wife.

As a big fan of the first series (second was not quite as good, the third I gave up on), I was very curious to read this and see how well it matched. Surprisingly it was quite similar though they gave June a bit more agency in the show. The prose is nice to read, a bit too much sometimes, but it does create a kind of dreamy atmosphere, more a nightmare than anything pleasant though. You can feel the monotony of Offred (we are never given her actual name in the book unlike the show), which is punctuated by moments of horror, both of the physical quality and realisations of how her life has changed.

What was most scary and why this resonates so much nowadays is how it all happened. A world pretty much like ours where gradual liberties are taken away in the name of security, where not enough people protested, makes for pretty grim reading. Like the show there are flashbacks to how it happened but I would have definitely liked more. I think this was pretty much the point though, our protagonist was just like the most of us, aware of what’s going on in the wider world but mostly focused on her own life and troubles, and then gets caught up with the consequences when it is too late to do anything about it.

What let this book down a bit though was the pace. Even with all the horror on show, and the message behind it, I was bored in parts as a lot of the book is pretty much just slice of life (and not in a good way). Offred in the book is much more passive than June/Offred in the show, she just can’t seem to get over her new station in life. It’s totally understandable but it doesn’t make for exciting reading.

I’m glad I read it but I’m not sure now about the follow up, I had planned to start straight away but I might put it off for a bit. A worthwhile read, particularly for its cultural and political significance now.

3.5 stars out of 5

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