‘Better never means better for everyone… It always means worse, for some..’
You know when you come across a band or a song or a film and you immediately fall in love? Then you dip into the rest of their output only to find the first thing that caught your attention is perhaps an anomaly? Well, The Handmaid’s Tale is not that but it’s kind of like that. Good clear intro for you there…
Earlier this year, I read Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy and it was genuinely one of the best things I have ever read. I loved it from the first few pages right to the end so when I started on The Handmaid’s Tale, arguably Atwood’s most celebrated work, I was disappointed to find it didn’t grab me straight away.
It feels to me like Atwood takes too long to play her cards with The Handmaid’s Tale as the plot is revealed in dribs and drabs throughout the first half of the book. It is also an unrelentingly grim novel and even an unrelentingly grim man such as myself found it pretty hard going at times.
The novel takes place in a dystopian future where large groups of society have been marginalized, murdered or shipped off to ‘colonies’. Women have become second class citizens and the role of a ‘handmaid’ is to provide a vessel for wealthy men to have children. The early parts of the novel sail a little too close to 1984 but Atwood eventually engrosses the reader with the little details and a casual horror that sometimes makes for difficult reading.
When the world that the eponymous handmaid lives in is fleshed out, the novel comes to life and Atwood is up there with the best in terms of crafting a lived in, expansive future for her characters to inhabit. The second half of the book is exciting, entertaining and shockingly dark and on reflection my lukewarm response to the first half of the book is probably down to still having the fireworks from the MaddAddam trilogy ringing in my ears.
Despite presenting a dystopian future and being over 20 years old, The Handmaid’s Tale is a relevant and topical novel and whilst it may not live up to the ridiculously high standards set by the MaddAddam trilogy, it is still an enjoyable and important work in its own right.