Book reviews / Science Fiction

Book review: The Handmaid’s Tale

Right, so I’m going to admit from the beginning that I have a long standing resentment of all things Margaret Atwood, cultivated by grade 11 English class. We had to read The Edible Woman of which my abiding memory is of a woman who is miserable for a long time and then eats a cake. I know it’s about feminism because this was hammered into us by my English teacher.

It is the kind of book that makes you resent English class and grow up to post shit on social media about how you’re not a feminist.

Luckily, my other English teachers were much better and I never lost my enthusiasm for reading (as you can probably tell) or feminism. But it is these kinds of books, I’m including The Handmaid’s Tale in this category, that make people think they hate Literature (capital L to distinguish it from the ‘low literature’ my grade 11 English teacher used to like to refer to anything I liked). It took me a long time to get over my apparent dislike of Literature because of that.

I think the difference between literature I like and literature I don’t is the level of relative misery. Tale of Two Cities, miserable but not omg miserable; War and Peace, miserable until half the people die, Handmaid’s Tale, utterly fucking miserable all the time.

I think if you recommended The Handmaid’s Tale and Mists of Avalon (both described as feminist novels) to any friends as examples of feminist literature, those friends would come back and ask if you were okay. They are utterly despairing and awful. They are also tedious and boring. At least Handmaid’s Tale is only 300 pages of awful and boring tediousness versus the 1000+ for Mists of Avalon.

The plot of The Handmaid’s Tale is that there was some sort of revolution in the US where an ultra religious group takes over some part of it. There’s also a problem with people getting pregnant (or at least having healthy children) so that the elite men are issued ‘Handmaids’ which are basically there to have children. It’s all premised (biblically) on the story of Rachel and Leah (who give their handmaid’s to their husbands to conceive children.

The story is focussed on one of the Handmaid’s, Offred. It flips from her relatively normal life before the revolution, to her life after as a handmaid. The stripping away of all the civil liberties of all women. There’s lots of other totalitarian aspects to it, surveillance, random killing, limited movement and all that sort of jazz too. I’d say it can’t pass the test because none of the women have a profession, they are all controlled one way or another (even when they’re not handmaids).

It’s so depressing. It also has one of those weird endings that you don’t know if she escapes or dies. How irritating. Have imagination. No, finish your fucking book. Lazy bastards.

Like The Road I really wonder what is going on with people’s lives that say, ‘Yeah, what the world really needs is a terrifyingly bleak and horrible book, where absolutely no one is happy.’ What motivates people to write this stuff? Is it because on the misery scale it’ll suddenly be good?

What I’d like now, is someone to recommend to me a happy feminist novel. They must exist, their joyful exuberance being overpowered by the literati by the bleak, dark and narrow views of the two I’ve read.

Just like people recommending other Neal Stephenson’s books after I torturously slogged through the three of his on the list – people have been recommending the Oryx and the Crake, which I will never read. I know what I like and it ain’t anything those two will ever write.

As you can probably guess, I don’t recommend reading this book. Go read Sunshine because it is a fucking delight. Definitely don’t recommend it to anyone asking for some feminist literature. I give it 1/5 stars because at least it was short enough and clearly trying to critique misogyny and all that (but sometimes it more or less feels like some sort of handbook to patriarchy.)


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