BOOKS: Staff Pick: “Handmaid’s Tale”
The Handmaid’s Tale
Margaret Atwood (Anchor Books)
Whether you think Margaret Atwood’s 1985 dystopian classic “The Handmaid’s Tale” is hewing awfully close to the bone at this moment in our nation’s history is probably a reflection of your political bent. The Hulu series based on “Handmaid’s,” which came out in April, surely gave book sales a bump — I plucked my paperback copy, which has a “Now a TV Series on Hulu” sticker on the cover, off one of many stacks of the book at the Tattered Cover that same month. But it has been on and off the Tattered Cover’s bestseller list since November, which suggests that, like the resurgence of George Orwell’s “1984,” the renewed popularity is tied more to political zeitgeist than our binge-watching habits.
Politics aside, this story has decades of staying power for a reason.
Offred is a “handmaid” in service of a new, theocratic United States; handmaids are among the few remaining women capable (or, hopefully capable) of bearing children. These women are given a choice: be surrogates for the chosen elite families, or be sent to the colonies, where whoknows-what misery awaits them. (The latter is a somewhat tempting choice given that they might find family and friends there — if their loved ones are still alive.)
Atwood’s clever imagining of this near-future is a masterwork of tension and mystery. Offred knows the Eyes are watching (this is a police state), she just doesn’t know who the Eyes are; she isn’t sure her handmaid partner for her daily to the market, Ofglen, is a true believer, and she can’t risk breaching strict protocol to ask (the handmaids are all named “Of” a man); did the driver wink at her, or did she imagine the risky flirtation? The reader is as isolated as Offred is, and we follow her into the psychic void her lonely existence forces upon her. This is where Atwood’s writing is at its powerful peak — alone in Offred’s head, with too much time on her hands to imagine, too much time left to remember.
But the thrills aren’t just psychological, and the twists that bring “The Handmaid’s Tale” to its conclusion make for unput-downable reading. That feeling, that need to know what happens next, reaffirms why Atwood’s timeless novel will continue to enjoy popularity well beyond the next news cycle — and the next election. — Jenn Fields