Tag Archives: The Handmaid’s Tale

Book Review Saturday – ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’

I took a notion, as we say in Ireland, to read this book again during the week. As I devoured it, I found an old tram ticket which I’d used as a bookmark the last time I’d read it, and it was dated almost exactly ten years ago – April 2005, to be exact.

A relic from times past...

A relic from times past…

Somehow, this seemed fitting. This is the sort of book which should be read over and over, because it has different meanings and resonances at different stages of your life.

I first read Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale in college, as part of my undergraduate English degree (on an amazing course which took in books by Jeanette Winterson and Angela Carter, as well as several from Atwood including my all-time favourite, The Robber Bride), which means I’ve read it three times in total over the past fifteen years. Ten years ago I was undertaking my PhD, and I was in my early – *cof* – mid twenties, living a dream life of independence and freedom in my capital city. This time, I find myself married, and with an entirely different (yet somehow very fulfilling) life from the one I imagined I’d have. As a woman, this means reading this book through several prisms of ‘femininity’, and it made an already fabulous book even better. It’s a landmark feminist text, but it says a huge amount that it’s also an Arthur C. Clarke Award-winning novel; feminism aside, it’s primarily an absorbing story about a future dystopia, a nightmare of SF, a terrible vision into a possible future.

Set, probably, sometime in the 1990s (the book was written in 1985, and the main character describes herself as having been a ‘child’ in the 1970s), The Handmaid’s Tale takes us through the life of a woman known only as ‘Offred’ – or, ‘Of Fred’, which marks her out as the property of her ‘Commander’, whose name is Fred or Frederick. She is a Handmaid, forced to wear scarlet robes and a red-and-white headdress, whose primary function in life is to act as a ‘brood-mare’ to a powerful man. This man (the Commander) is married, but his Wife – the role takes an initial capital letter at all times – is, for unknown reasons, unable to provide him with a child. Women, in this world, belong to several ‘groupings’ – Handmaids and Wives are two of these, along with Daughters (natural daughters of the Commanders) and Aunts (women whose role it is to train the Handmaids and keep them in line). There are also Marthas, who act as domestic servants, and Econowives, women who are married to lesser-ranking and poorer men and who have to fulfil multiple roles simultaneously. Men belong to equally strict segregations, including Angels (armed militia), Eyes (who patrol the morality of their fellow citizens, doling out harsh punishments as necessary), Guardians (lesser Angels) and Commanders. It is a world of no flexibility, no freedom, no comfort and no autonomy, where the threat of being deported to ‘The Colonies’, a certain death sentence, is always hanging overhead. Women have no power, not even Wives, whose influence is entirely illusory and granted to them by their husbands as a ‘sop’ – and, accordingly, their treatment of the women beneath them can be vicious. But the greatest tragedy of Offred’s life is that she wasn’t born into this world – the post-revolutionary ‘Republic of Gilead’, as it’s known. She was born and grew up in the United States, where she had a normal life including a husband and a young daughter, all of which she lost once the ultra right-wing power structures took over after a military coup. She knows what it’s like to live freely, to have her own job and her own income, and to choose whom she wishes to love. She knows how it feels to have a child and have her taken from you, a fate she’s facing again if she falls pregnant by the Commander. Her life in Gilead is a mental and physical torture.

The story seems narrated ‘after the fact’ by Offred, but even so the tension and terror of her life comes through very clearly. She is under control all the time, whether it’s an Aunt or a Wife or her Commander or an Angel keeping her down, or indeed one of her fellow Handmaids – for they must always go about in pairs, in order to keep an eye on one another. She is constantly on the lookout for her husband, Luke, of whose fate she knows nothing, and for her lost daughter, trying to tell herself they are still alive. She knows her ‘time’ is running out – if she doesn’t deliver a child soon, she will be declared an ‘Unwoman’ and killed – and she struggles with suicidal thoughts at several junctures in the story. Her status dictates that she can’t refuse her Commander anything, so when he begins to make unreasonable demands on her – demands which place her life in grave danger – she has no choice but to comply. Add to this her Commander’s Wife’s desperation for a baby, and the implication that she knows what has happened to Offred’s daughter, as well as Offred’s need to find out what happened to the other Handmaids she trained with and the complicated feelings she develops for Nick, her household’s chauffeur (which also put her life in danger), and you have a novel where the stakes couldn’t be higher. This tension is expertly maintained; the language is often soporific and beautiful, and the pace is gentle, but the terror never abates.

This book is often seen as a precursor to Louise O’Neill’s recent bestseller, Only Ever Yours, and there are several similarities – the repressed society, the ‘ranks’ of women, the bitchiness and backstabbing between the groups – but the books differ in several major respects. Most notably, The Handmaid’s Tale is far more body- and woman-positive, despite everything, than Only Ever Yours; Offred is never seen to hate her own body for how it looks, or shown as feeling inadequate or incomplete. She has a sensual side which she does her best, within the bounds of her society, to express, and she never loses touch with her own sense of herself as a woman. She is, despite everything, not ashamed of herself or her body, and even though she’s shown deliberately not looking at herself as she gets dressed and undressed, I got the feeling this was more about fear she’d lose her self-control if she did so, rather than out of any sort of inability to stomach her own nakedness. The Handmaid’s Tale is a more hopeful book, in many ways, than Only Ever Yours, which may reflect the thirty years which have passed between the publication of one and the other; reflecting on their different meanings, and what this says about the real-life world we live in, is the true terror of these stories.

The Handmaid’s Tale is a masterwork, and it’s a book I’m sure I’ll revisit again and again as I grow older. It has something to say to every stage of a woman’s life – but this isn’t to say it’s a book that only women should read. It’s a vital story for everyone, particularly those interested in ideas of liberty, autonomy and equality between races and sexes. It’s one of the best books I’ve ever read, and I’ll always be grateful to have been exposed to it first as a teenager – and that it’s still a book I find compelling as I draw close to middle age.

Image: waterstones.com

Image: waterstones.com

Here’s Lookin’ at you, Kid

I recently read a really good article by Margaret Atwood (I can’t find a link to it online, which is a shame) about the importance of dressing your fictional characters, and getting it right. She talked about the fashion cut-out games she used to play with as a child during the war, where you took printed ‘dolls’ and printed clothes, cut around the outlines, and used one to dress the other in any way you pleased. I remember them from my own childhood, too; they were endless fun, particularly the ones you could colour in yourself. Customisation, baby. It’s key.

The point of talking about dolls was to illustrate the importance of clothes, appearances, and the descriptions thereof in your writing. For Atwood, this appears to be important; she discussed the lengths to which she went in order to get the clothes right for her novel Alias Grace, which is set in a women’s prison in nineteenth-century Canada, for instance, which involved months of painstaking work. Only the most astute of readers would have known, in all likelihood, if she had got it wrong, but that’s not the sort of writer Atwood is. She also wrote about her influences when designing the clothing for the characters in her masterwork The Handmaid’s Tale, which drew on historical sources as well as advertising imagery from her youth. She argued, persuasively, that clothing ‘maketh’ the setting – if a reader can’t believe in a character’s clothing (i.e. it’s not functional for the role they’re playing in their world, and completely logical and sensible and ultimately, easy to picture) it undermines the whole believability of the story.

Well, yes. I found myself nodding along with all this, agreeing wholeheartedly – and then realising, like a slap across the chops, that I don’t do any of this in my own writing. None of it. In fact, something I tend not to do at all is describe the people in my stories, unless it’s a situation where they have three heads, perhaps, and that knowledge is vital to the reader’s understanding of the plot. In my most ‘finished’ work to date, my début novel The Eye of the North, I don’t describe my main character very much besides the fact that she’s wearing a dress. What colour is the dress? I never say. What fabric is it made from? Unspecified. Her coat? The same. She’s wearing one, but it could be black, or blue, or canary yellow. It could be a floor-length, fur-collared beauty, or a dinner jacket. This never struck me as being significant; as a reader, I tend to like it when writers leave imaginative space around a character’s looks, so that we can picture whoever we like in the lead role.

But maybe I’m wrong about that.

It could also be down to the fact that I, as a human person separate from my writing life, do not care about clothes at all. My mother despairs of me. I have, at most, two pairs of wearable jeans (one for the body and one for the wash – it’s logical, right?) and maybe three or four shirts/tops which I alternate, without a lot of thought as to fashion, colour coordination, and so on. If something fits me, I wear it. If it’s clean, all the better. I’ve never been fashionable, because it just doesn’t come into my sphere. I’m interested in fashion as a human endeavour, and as an art form, and I love the style of the forties and fifties, for instance – but I’m entirely the wrong shape, everywhere, to dress like a glamourpuss from the war era. For me, it’s strictly an ‘admiration from a distance’ thing. So, maybe that’s why I don’t dwell overmuch on physical appearance in my writing. Emmeline (my main character) is described, in sketchy terms, somewhere near the end of my book, but as a throwaway comment; how she looks isn’t important to the fact that she’s strong, independent, intelligent and resourceful. Her dress is only described when it gets in the way, and likewise her boots. Essentially, Emmeline dresses for convenience, a lot like me.

I wonder if I’m alone in not being too invested in an author’s physical descriptions of their characters, though. I love Haruki Murakami, for instance, but one thing that drives me round the twist with that author is his tendency to linger, rather lasciviously, on the physical attributes of his female characters. It irritates me both because it’s not necessary but also because it’s rather unrealistic, and makes me think ‘oh, yes. Here’s the author again, intervening in the thoughts of his made-up people.’ I also tend to get annoyed when an author introduces a character to us by saying something like: ‘And then Tony turned the corner and there was Billy, all six-foot-four of him, his straw-yellow hair askew beneath his flat cap. He turned, his bright green eyes lighting up as he smiled at his oldest friend, the gap between his front teeth making his broad, sunburned face look relaxed and almost childlike. He took a step in Tony’s direction, holding out one broad, rough-palmed hand in welcome.’ I’d rather know that Tony had to look up to meet Billy’s gaze (hence, he’s tall), or that a gust of wind knocked the hat off his head (hence, he was wearing one), and have him talk about his work outdoors (hence, allowing us to imagine that he’s sunburned and weather-beaten). Is it just me?

Anyway. Next month, with any luck, I’ll be starting the edits for The Eye of the North. We’ll see, then, what my editor thinks of my tendency not to describe the physicality of my characters. There may be wailing and gnashing of teeth – and lots of research into fabric, dress design and ruffles. I shudder at the thought!



Book Review Saturday – ‘Only Ever Yours’

This. Book.

It almost broke me, this did. I read it all, in one day, in giant gulps, because I couldn’t be parted from it. I read halfway through the night to get it finished, which meant I was utterly banjaxed, to use a wonderful Irish-English word, the following morning.

So worth it, though.

Louise O’Neill’s Only Ever Yours has been described as a modern-day Handmaid’s Tale, which was what first piqued my interest in it. I am, as are all right-thinking people, a huge fan of Margaret Atwood and The Handmaid’s Tale is my second favourite of her books (after The Robber Bride, which is genius); Only Ever Yours has a similar premise, but in so many ways it’s even more chilling than its predecessor. Where Atwood’s book showed a female character, subjugated in every possible way, struggling to free herself from the oppression of her existence, Only Ever Yours shows an even more horrifying scenario – one in which any attempt at creating a space in which women can taste even the barest hint of agency seems ultimately pointless.

It’s brilliant.

It’s also tragic, triggering, upsetting, and rage-inducing – but it should be required reading for everyone who cares about the world we live in and what we’re doing to our girls and women.

We are introduced to freida, one of the ‘eves’ (genetically engineered girls, born of plastic ‘wombs’ and placed from early childhood in the School, where they learn how to be submissive, obedient man-pleasing objects), and the novel is narrated through her (perfect) eyes. She has one best friend among her fellow eves, a girl named isabel; they and the other eves, such as the magnificent megan and the vacant twins liz and jessie (I’m sure there’s a fangirl reference to Sweet Valley High going on here, which gave me such a wry smile as I read) live together in what I imagined as a dormitory full of independent sleep chambers. Every possible surface is mirrored. Mantras such as Fat girls should be made obsolete and Good girls are always happy and easy-going and There is always room for improvement are played regularly over loudspeakers. The eves have been taught since childhood to endlessly compare themselves to one another, uploading images of their faces and bodies to a version of social media called MyFace where ‘games’ in which they choose which ‘face’ is the best, and which body is the most perfect, are their primary means of communication and ‘entertainment’. Rankings among the eves are mercilessly fought for – isabel was #1 for years, and even though freida is her friend, when isabel is knocked off the top spot for reasons which aren’t made clear until the end of the book, freida can’t help but wish that she could be the eve who replaces her.

She isn’t. Instead, it’s megan, and we see isabel slowly begin to destroy herself. This leaves freida in an impossible position – to jockey for favour with megan, or stick with isabel, a girl whom she loves deeply but who is sliding so far down the rankings as to make her dangerous, and whose presence in freida’s life may damage her prospects for the future. Prospects which might spell the difference between life and death, for the Inheritants are coming – the top 10 most powerful young men in the Euro-Zone, who want to choose an eve for their very own. There are only 10 men, but there are twenty-nine eves…

I couldn’t believe how sharply observed this novel was. Things which are so familiar to me, as a woman who grew up very imperfect-looking, are all over the story. Backhanded compliments. ‘Concern trolling’ – which wasn’t called that when I was young, but which certainly existed. Perfectly judged comments designed to find another girl’s weak point and shatter her without giving her an opportunity to mount a defence for fear of ‘losing face.’ Power play between teenage girls which would put most four-star generals to shame. The intricacy of peer groups, and the ties which bind girls to one another – not friendship or love, but survival. Complicated, to say the least, relationships with food, nutrition, exercise and body image. The insular, isolated, high-pressured environment of the School – which mirrors, in so many ways, the anxiety and stress inside the minds of so many teenage girls. It is no surprise that every surface in this book is reflective.

Hip-hop culture and its misogynistic portrayal of women is depicted – but instead of the girls taking up arms against the woman-hating message of the song they hear, they wholeheartedly embrace the lesson that they are nothing but slaves to a man’s lust. Reality TV, where ‘characters’ are shown receiving beatings from their husbands, are understood as instruction manuals for the girls’ future lives as ‘companions’ (passive ‘wives’ to powerful men like the Inheritants, whose only objective is to bear sons and be euthanised at forty). Pornography is a way of life, and girls who are to become ‘concubines’ see their futures reflected in it. The third group of women – those who are not appealing to men, and for whom no other use can be found – become ‘chastities’, whose job it is to teach in the School and prepare the next generations of girls to become mindless, eternally pleasing and aesthetically perfect women. So much of what O’Neill depicts here already exists in our world, in some form; it doesn’t take a huge leap to see the things we live with every day becoming the horror she so expertly depicts in this novel.

Here is an extract which, I think, is illustrative of the novel as a whole, from pages 60-61 in my edition:

‘Step forward, #727.’
The glass doors part. She stands before us.
‘Remove your dressing gown.’
There’s silence. christy unties the white towelling robe and lets it fall to the ground. She’s wearing pink lace underwear, small lumps of flesh spilling out over the knickers, the inner edges of her thighs close to touching.

#727 has been lazy. She has been lazy and she has been greedy. She deserves to be punished. Don’t you agree?’
Flashes from digi-cams and eFones are exploding like a flood. My hands are clammy, fear crawling up my spine bone by bone, unfurling in my throat.
‘Don’t you agree, girls?’ A note of warning has entered her voice.
‘Yes, chastity-ruth.’
‘I can’t hear you. Does #727 deserve to be punished?’
‘YES, chastity-ruth.’ We have to give her what she wants. We will give her whatever she wants.
She reaches into the pocket of her robe and retrieves a marker, someone behind me gasping at the rare sight of a writing implement. Wielding it like a blade, she walks around christy, once, twice, three times, before cutting into christy’s fair skin, drawing vivid red circles on her body.
‘What is #727, girls? What is she?’
We don’t know, we don’t know, we don’t know.
‘She’s fat, girls. She’s fat and disgusting. Say it with me. She’s fat. Fat. Fat.’

This book is so disturbing because, despite being a fantasy of the future, it is the reality through which so many people are living, even now. It is the 24-7, always-on, internet generation, in which judgement of others makes you a better person and where you are always on the lookout for someone more flawed than you are. It’s a world of ‘fashion’ magazines, with their ‘circles of shame’ and their judgement of women’s bodies and their relentless focus on appearance, attractiveness, perfection. It’s a world in which how you look, and how you’re seen, is everything. It’s a world where young girls are taught that they are not people in their own right, but they exist only to please. It’s the world in which we teach little girls not to cry or make a fuss or get dirty in case they ruin their ‘prettiness’; it’s the world in which we deny little girls the right to an education because what good is it, being literate, when you don’t need to read to give birth or wash dishes? It’s the world in which little boys are encouraged to be whatever they like – not without its own pressure, of course – and little girls are taught to obey.

It is the world we live in now. And it is horrifying.

Only Ever Yours is a marvellous book, but it is hard to read in places if you have any experience with body-image issues, disordered eating, cyberbullying, domestic violence or sexual assault. This doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be read: on the contrary, it makes it even more important. It’s the most clear-eyed, intelligent and compelling dissection of our vacuous and hate-filled society that I’ve ever seen. Like lancing any boil, it is painful – but it is necessary. If you know and love a teenage girl – indeed, even a teenage boy – read this book, then let them read it, and discuss the issues it brings up. Perhaps that’s the first step we can all take in changing our thinking for the benefit of everyone – and we get to read a brilliant story, masterfully written, to sweeten the deal. I can’t recommend it highly enough.