BOOKS: Staff Pick: “Hand­maid’s Tale”

The Denver Post - - LIFE & CULTURE -

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

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