The Handmaid’s Tale
I first read The Handmaid’s Tale sometime in college in the late 1980s. After about 20 years of recommending it, I have been thinking maybe I should read it again to make sure I would still think it recommendation-worthy. Although given my pro-Atwood bias it seemed unlikely I would change my tune. My husband (at my urging) brought The Handmaid’s Tale along with him on our trip to Thailand and Cambodia. I casually picked it up just to remind myself what he was going to be reading and suddenly found myself drawn in. And not surprisingly I enjoyed reading it again, remembering things I had forgotten and noticing new details. Some of the themes may be slightly dated, but the story is still very compelling.
The brilliant thing about Margaret Atwood’s speculative fiction is that she is such a master of language that she can create a new world without the descriptions seeming forced. The details of her dystopias just unfold as part of the narrative. There are none of those klutzy moments like those found in the works of lesser writers. Those writers who, like an old fashioned opera singer who has no sense of drama and who can’t sing and act at the same time, walks to the middle of the stage plants his/her feet, faces forward and sings the whole damn aria like they were giving a recital. Although, having said that, I must admit that Atwood does get a little cutesy when she applies proper nouns to some of her made up people, places, and things like she did in Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood.
My biggest problem with The Handmaid’s Tale is the same issue I had when I read it 20 years ago. The ending feels too frivolous to me. I think the story is quite devastating. It just seems wrong to end on a humorous note. No doubt Atwood is satirizing academia and academic conferences, but the emotional effect is a little jarring for me.
But none of the quibbles really matter. The book, like Atwood herself, is brilliant. And I am now contemplating a re-read of all of her fiction. And to those Canadians who may think Atwood overexposed, over-praised and self-important (I’ve read your blogs…), for many of us fans who aren’t exposed to Atwood as a National Treasure, the woman is a goddess.