The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

handmaidThe Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood, Vintage 1996. Copyright 1985

Unless you’ve been living under a rock you’ve probably heard of the Handmaid’s Tale by now. I for one am looking forward to watching the Netflix adaptation now that I’ve finally read the novel. This is actually my second Atwood book- the first was Penolopiad which I NEEDED LIKE WATER IN A DESERT after studying The Odyssey in a male dominated classroom.

The Handmaid’s Tale sets place in the Republic of Gilead, formerly the U.S.A where our protagonist Offred serves a family as the role of a handmaid. Or more crudely as the role of a breeder. Women have been separated into different roles to serve this very patriarchal society with Wives at the top and Unwomen at the bottom. Offred can either submit or be hung on the wall as a traitor.

This is a very powerful book. I imagine it would have been shattering if I had not already read works like The Power recently. It’s hard to believe this was published in 1985 especially when you look at the U.S.A now.  Atwood is brilliant at describing the long slow suffocation of a person who remembers the freedom of a previous life. I also love that Atwood doesn’t paint the previous world (our present one) as a perfect one where women were completely free. The attitudes stay the same but the structure changed.

I remember the rules, rules that were never spelled out but every woman knew: Don’t open your door to a stranger, even if he says he is the police. Make him slide his ID under the door. Don’t stop on the road to help a motorist pretending to be in trouble. Keep the locks on and keep going. If anyone whistles, don’t turn to look. Don’t go into a laundromat, by yourself, at night.

I also appreciated the flashbacks of Offred’s former marriage and how atypical yet intimate it was.

The lack of knowledge is at the heart of the book. Offred and so we the readers have no idea what is going on in the world outside of the tiny bubble of Offred and the Commander’s household except for brief glimpses. Everything even with the spurts of violence is muffled like the writing of a person in shock.

 

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The Power by Naomi Alderman

coverThe Power. Naomi Alderman. Copyright 2016. Penguin 2017.

I was well aware of this book before I started reading. When The Power won the Bailey’s Prize for 2017 Booktube seemed to be split on whether it deserved the winning spot or not. The main criticism I kept coming across was the language is too simple for this to win a major literary prize. I myself believe that this novel definitely deserved the win. It is one of the most exciting books I have read in a long time.

The Power starts with a simple yet catastrophic idea. What if young girls suddenly had a power that could inflict terrible pain? What if they could wake it up in older women?

At first we see the male characters see the power of the teenage girls and think how can I exploit this? For money or for violence but gradually gradually we see the power shift and at first I felt so excited watching it. Vindicated. We see that what we consider normal- women feeling unease and fear around huge groups of men, women being abused physically or sexually by men, women being casually humiliated or demeaned at work, at home, on the streets- all of this was suddenly shifting to the other side. Alderman doesn’t just stop there, however, and what was first thrilling turns ghastly.

The scope of this book is fascinating! As the power dynamics from places as diverse as the boardroom in New England, to the underbelly of London, to the kingdom of Saudi, to streets of Delhi start to shift. Alderman illustrates not just big changes but the small subtle ones too, like between two news anchors.

Well now, Kristen, if a power like this existed, maybe we bred it out deliberately, maybe we didn’t want it around. You’d tell me if you could do something like that, wouldn’t you, Kristen? Well, you know, Tom, maybe I’d want to keep a thing like that to myself. The news’ anchors eyes meet. Something unspoken passes between them. And now the weather on the ones.

The story switches from the Point of View of four main characters- a girl in England, a young man in Nigeria, a woman in New England and a girl who wants to set the world on fire. The language is simple but emotionally effective and the story is exciting and complex.

This isn’t just a look at a different world. Naomi is holding up a mirror to our world now. And what the mirror shows will horrify you.