Somehow, despite many recommendations to me over the years, I still had not read The Handmaid's Tale, so I chose that as my 'banned book' for the 50 Book Challenge. I can see why this book is challenged – and why so many schools want to teach and examine it.
It's hard to like this story, the tale itself, but I'll admit that it's masterfully told. This is the story of Offred (Of-Fred), just one of many women whose total personhood was ripped from her by the Fundamentalist theocracy of Gilead (previously the USA). In a word where birth rates have plummeted while sterility and birth defects have risen, a religious revolt (first blamed on Islamic terrorists, of course) took complete control of families and reproduction. Offred is a Handmaid, fertile women who are given to Commanders for breeding purposes. At first Offred struggles to be suitably pious, and slowly she regains small freedoms that lead to the most dangerous thing of all – hope.
I have few issues with the novel itself. The basic premise seems to strain the disbelief of some, but in an age where our courts are giving more rights to craft stores than to women and our politicians totally misrepresenting rape, I find Atwood's world disturbingly plausible. Yes, it seemed to have happened very fast in the novel, and I'm disturbed by the idea that Gilead sprung even partially from 'feminism taken too far', but for a book written in the 80s, it did a fair job of speculating on certain political, anti-feminist, and racist trends.
Some reviews dislike how the world was gradually revealed, including the use of flashbacks, but I think this was excellently done. As someone who leans heavily towards speculative fiction, I really enjoy a total immersion in worlds that slowly-yet-expertly unfurl rather than a chapter or two of info-dump/backstory right off the bat. As a writer, I know flashbacks can be very tricky. I think both the world-building and flashbacks were perfectly done.
I only have two real issues that keep this from being 5 stars, in my opinion. The story relies a bit too much on curiosity about the world to keep the reader moving forward. There is very little action in the first half of the book. The pacing is just too slow at the outset, and this is not helped one bit by the forced-one-dimensional female characters. For people not invested in the revolution or completely turned off by the heavy religious overtones, there's little remaining to hook anyone until mid-way through the book.
The other issue, for me, is also a very heavy-handedness in the first half of the book. I love Offred's voice and the lean towards stream-of-consciousness, but the writing itself skirts too close to purple prose in the beginning. There is definitely some breathtaking wordsmithing at work, but there's also a bit of wordplay masturbation going on. It just seemed a bit try-hard on the outset, though that problem was mostly just the beginning chapters, and it flowed a lot more easily and with much more subtle brilliancy later on as the story picked up.
I don't want to give too much away about the story itself. Offred is a bit more passive than I would have liked, but her story is a gripping one. Both stories, her story now and 'from before'. I would definitely recommend this as a 'must read'. We want to think these kinds of things can't happen in today's world, but they have and do – there are women like Offred still alive today in the Middle East, forced to cover themselves from head-to-toe, allowed outdoors only with an escort, and yet who can still remember days when they were allowed to go to school, wear makeup, hold jobs, have command of their own bodies and lives. There are still women today in all nations who are caught in that boiling pot without realizing it. Women whose daughters might one day be the 'lucky ones' because they don't have the spectre of lost freedoms to yearn for. It's a theme worth exploring mindfully, and Atwood is an author who did so beautifully.