Book Review: The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

The Handmaid's TaleThe Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

There’s no doubt about it, Margaret Atwood spins a good yarn. ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ is an interesting, well-written dystopian story of a near future where strict and extremist Christian religion has taken over the entire political and social order of America and subdued the population (in particular, the women) into a kind of cross between medieval puritanical and Taliban-esque slavery.

From a literary point of view, the style, language, content, characterisation and themes are pretty faultless. You can tell, shall we say, that Atwood has ‘done it before’ and indeed if you go into any of the better quality bookshops you’ll find entire shelf units given over to her numerous books. No wonder she is the doyenne of quality fictional writing currently.

But it is precisely because of that accolade and others like it that forces me to drop the rating for this novel. I was attracted to the story partly from what little I knew of it after reading the blurb, but mostly from the oft-held view that her voice was uncannily prescient and scary after Donald Trump’s election victory. I looked forward to a ‘Brave New World’ or ‘1984’ for our present era. I was, I’m sorry to say, rather disappointed.

There is nothing in this novel which hasn’t been repeated a dozen times before and there is simply not the depth I would expect from a literary piece of dystopia. I really can’t see this novel entering the canon of ‘must-reads’ in decades to come. What do we come away with learning about the human condition from this book? Not a lot really. Atwood gives too much time to an undisguised attack on religion at a surface level and fails to dig deeper into more compelling philosophies underlying the reasons for what takes place as a result. Whereas Orwell and Huxley send us away musing over the human condition, Atwood fails to give us anything at all.

As ‘great literature’ then, ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ fails. I didn’t find anything which made me think especially of Trump. If anything, I likened it more to Khalid Hosseini’s Afghanistan-setting books. But there again, Hosseini gives us depth which makes us wonder about man’s inhumanity to man in the name of religion or politics. Atwood gives us mere glimpses into relatively two-dimensional characters which cannot hope to develop the same kind of thinking.

But as a story? Pretty darned good – definitely ticks all the boxes. Like ‘The Girl with all the Gifts’ I won’t ever feel the need to read this book again, but I thoroughly enjoyed the moment. The epilogue was, perhaps, a little twee and heavy-handed, but otherwise the plot worked, was believable and was as a good a romp through a dystopian future as any. Certainly, there are worse ways to spend your time. If you want to be touched and roused to philosophical musings – stick with the past masters. But if a tangible near-future hell is your kind of thing – look no further.

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Social Entrepreneur, writer and journalist D K Powell is the author of the bestselling collection of literary short stories “The Old Man on the Beach“. His first book, ‘Sonali’ is a photo-memoir journal of life in Bangladesh and has been highly praised by the Bangladeshi diaspora worldwide. Students learning the Bengali language have also valued the English/Bengali translations on every page. Ken has two new books coming out soon – don’t miss them!

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Both ‘The Old Man on the Beach’ and ‘Sonali’ are available on Amazon for kindle and paperback. Published by Shopno Sriti Media.

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4 thoughts on “Book Review: The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

  1. I haven’t read the book so I can’t do any comparison, but I’d watched the series up to a point where , for some reason, ( I’ve seen worse ), I had to drop the series because I found it very repulsive .

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  2. I read this way way back…. it was about a year or so before the film came out… I’d read a review in a games magazine (White Dwarf iirc… Dave Langford always influenced my reading far more than Colin Greenland did.. but I digress. ..)

    Reread it recently. .. I’m of the opinion that the very shallowness of the writing and the characterisation ( an accusation also levelled at 1984) is one of its strengths… OfFred is writing either under stressful conditions or from imperfect memory, if the work is not a complete invention.. the framing of the novel as a found document lends itself to the idea that this may not be what it seems… it could be a genuine account, or propaganda, or even an attempt at a novel about the era of Gilead written by a novice long after the fact (I seem to remember Attwood herself putting this forward at a SF convention)…

    As for being a “must read”… I think I’ve seen this book on “must read” lists of SF almost as often as I’ve seen The Left Hand of Darkness or Foundation. ..

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    1. I’m not sure that’s true of 1984 – would love to see your evidence. Generally, the novel was highly praised – including by Bertrand Russell (C S Lewis wasn’t keen but that’s because he didn’t find the sexual tension believable). The characterisation in Handmaid’s Tale is actually fine but it is very shallow writing I’m afraid (INHO of course!). Your arguments about the nature of the ‘composition’ of the book I think is a bit of a cop-out even if (perhaps because!) Atwood has proposed them herself. The Color Purple is written, initially, by an semi-illiterate poor black girl – yet despite the evident limitations that style should impose, Alice Walker succeeds in giving us a book which is very very far from shallow and does so from page one! I could give other examples. In the hands of a writer who should be adept, as Atwood seems to be, the limitations of a setting or style should never limit the depths of a novel. Frankly, I think she just wrote a damned good yarn.
      Which leads nicely into your comment about ‘must reads’. I’m not sure sci-fi lists are quite the same as general ‘must read’ lists. That’s not as stuffy as it might appear to say – there’s less sci-fi and so choices are more limited. Many of the great sci-fi books are not especially great writings. Asimov’s Foundation series is brilliant (I have the entire collection on my shelf at least twice over!) but it’s not a great literary work – it is just a damned good yarn and well-thought-out piece of sci-fi. I would happily consider Atwood’s book in a similar vein. Good sci-fi – not great literature. The Handmaid’s Tale currently does sit in several must read lists but it’s only 20 years old and my prediction is that once current popularity has run its course, the book will slip into obscurity. Give it 40-50 years or so…

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