The 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.
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!
Both ‘The Old Man on the Beach’ and ‘Sonali’ are available on Amazon for kindle and paperback. Published by Shopno Sriti Media.
D K Powell is available to speak at events (see his TEDx talk here) and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org