The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood (1985) 324 p.

When I was a younger writer I had a habit of treating forced captivity – that is to say, imprisonment, restraint, incarceration – as a mere event in a grander story. That stemmed from boy’s adventure stuff; Tintin working free of his ropes, Solid Snake at his leisure to utilise countless ways to escape a jail cell, etc. Obviously this was childish but it’s interesting to note why I saw it that way: imprisonment was a challenge, a puzzle, and above all a temporary setback – the idea that the protagonist would escape was never remotely in question.

Viewed from a more mature age, captivity is one of the most horrific things that can happen to a human being. To be completely at somebody else’s mercy, somebody who could hurt or kill or rape you, to be robbed of your freedom, and to know that there’s really no light at the end of the tunnel – that they have complete control over you and you are never going to escape.

I mention this because while I’ve long since grown out of the notion of treating captivity in fiction as a sort of MacGuyver-esque puzzle to be solved, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale is one of the best examples I’ve read of the the hollow, gut-wrenching feeling of being trapped in unjust confinement. I’ve been meaning to read it ever since I read Oryx & Crake back in university – it’s Atwood’s most famous novel, after all, even more so than her Booker Prize-winning The Blind Assassin. Narrated by the titular handmaid who goes only by the name of “Offred,” it posits a future dystopia in which the US government has been overthrown and the nation renamed Gilead, ruled by a patriarchal theocracy in which women are subservient to men in all things. Offred, once a successful university student, a partner, a mother, a feminist, has now been reduced by society to a “womb with legs.” She has been assigned as a “handmaid” to a high-ranking Commander, as families attempt to overcome mass infertility by using younger, healthier women as breeding stock. Offred is prohibited from reading or writing, and the tale is narrated to us inside her own head, teasing out elements of her past while she introduces us to this terrible new world.

Part (but not all) of what you get out of this book will depend on how plausible you find Gilead to be. I have to say that Atwood, in my opinion, made the mistake of digging a little too deep beneath the surface of her fictional world. Offred is only in her early thirties and it apparently hasn’t been more than a few years since “Congress was machine-gunned” and women’s financial assets were reassigned to their partners. Canada, England and Japan (at the very least) are explicitly shown to remain free and functioning democracies, with a secret “Underground Femaleroad” smuggling fleeing women across the northern border to safety – so we know this revolution was limited to the US rather than part of a general global slouch towards limiting freedoms that we might see in, oh, say, most of the modern Western world today. (Indeed, it’s hard not to read a little Canadian smugness in Atwood’s voice, particularly in the metafictional epilogue.) To be fair, part of the point of the novel is how quickly things can change; Offred makes repeated reference to the new normal, to the point where she sometimes feels strange when noticing mundane objects that are still the same as they always were. But I would have preferred the origins and the back story of Gilead to have remained shrouded in a little more secrecy. The Handmaid’s Tale feels far more like an extremist example of extrapolated trends than an actual, realised vision of a dystopian future. It’s been a long time since I read it, but I’m pretty sure Oryx & Crake is the more believable (and better) novel.

Atwood has an interesting article in the Guardian in which she lays out the thinking behind the genesis of this dystopian future:

Nations never build apparently radical forms of government on foundations that aren’t there already. Thus China replaced a state bureaucracy with a similar state bureaucracy under a different name, the USSR replaced the dreaded imperial secret police with an even more dreaded secret police, and so forth.

This overlooks the fact that late 20th century America was not a remotely similar society to early 20th century Russia or mid-20th century China. Yeah, yeah, I know, Orwell set 1984 in England to prove that dictatorships can happen anywhere and to any society, etc. But America going from a free and liberal society with a puritanical streak to a North Korean-style totalitarian state in, apparently, the space of less than five or ten years? Not buying it. Maybe there’s a book that can convince me all human societies are a whisper away from organised barbarism, but The Handmaid’s Tale isn’t it.

Which is not to say that it’s not a good novel. It is. I’ve spent most of this review banging on about the plausibility of its world, but it’s meant to be taken in equal measure as a metaphor or a parable as much as a cautionary tale. Atwood is a deeply personal writer, and The Handmaid’s Tale is concerned less with Gilead as a place and more with Gilead as a concept, and the brutal effect it has on Offred’s internal thoughts, feelings and desires. It’s the small things that make the novel so affecting: Offred’s frustration with the day-to-day tedium of her slavery, since she has nothing to read, nothing to occupy her time – an aspect of captivity that had, surprisingly, never occurred to me. Or her anguished imagination of the three possible fates of her partner Luke, from whom she was separated during their long-ago escape attempt: successfully over the border, dead, or in captivity. Offred draws these scenes out in painful detail, imagining Luke as a mouldering skeleton in a forest with bullet holes through his skull, or shaved and shackled in a cell somewhere, or living free in Canada without her. “One of these must be true,” she says, but it’s the ignorance of his fate that’s so heartbreaking. Schroedinger’s loved one.

Novels which set out an elaborate imagined world, especially dystopian novels, often fall back on simply presenting the world as it is, with an absence of any driving plot or developing story. The Handmaid’s Tale actually does the latter, but it wouldn’t have needed to – Atwood’s skill as a writer is in the smaller moments, the slices of life, and the ways we perceive the world. It’s not her best book, but I can understand why it’s her most famous; I can see why it struck a chord with so many readers.