So I didn’t manage to finish The Vorrh in enough time to ensure I’d get through The Handmaid’s Tale in enough time for book club, so I’ll be going back to it*. I’m far enough in that I know it’s going to be an interesting post, for sure.
I’ll admit it, I haven’t actually read The Handmaid’s Tale before. I know, I know, I really ought to have. Seminal work of feminist dystopia and all that. Booker nominated speculative fiction! Multi-award winning! So many reasons I should have got round to this, rather than have it lurking on my To Read list. So, probably spurred on by the current tv show (which I wouldn’t watch without having read the book), I decided to nominate it for this month’s book club meeting, and I am so, so pleased it won. Not because I’ve ticked it off my list. But because it turns out it is probably one of the best books I have ever read.
I think part of that is I got to it in a good week. I started reading it on a Monday, mid-way through a book I suspect of being… iffy on gender stuff, and just after having reacted very very positively to a film for feministy reasons. I was in the right headspace for this. But I think I’d have loved it, if not quite as ridiculously much, whenever I came to it. Because it strikes the perfect balance of horror and realism, creating a dystopia thoroughly rooted in things one can relate to. Atwood is particularly good at grounding her world in history, creating images of the future with echoes of the past, making it so much easier to visualise things ever so clearly. Likewise, the style of the narration, the humanity of it brings it closer to something you can easily feel and imagine. It’s not a dispassionate, third person narrative, watching from a distance. It’s a person right there, feeling those feelings and seeing those things, with all the attendant confusion, unreliability and lack of detail that brings. It’s not explaining every single tiny cause and effect and grand scheme and overarching theme. It’s more human than that, and that’s what makes it so wonderful.
More than anything, though, it is Atwood’s prose that sells it. I forget, sometimes, when I’ve been reading a lot of books with good stories and writing that… gets out of the way… that I really really value decent prose. For all that I love the SFF genre, and I do (I mean, I have a blog dedicated to talking about it and everything), one of the ways I feel it lets itself down is that, on the whole, the standard of writing required for something to be considered good is much, much lower than you might get in other genres. Not all the time, and I’m not saying there’s no well written SFF (I mean, China Miéville exists). But it’s not the norm. So when I do get to some SFF with properly glorious, beautiful writing (thank you David Mitchell, for instance), it stands out as the joy it is to read. And The Handmaid’s Tale is exactly that. Atwood uses her prose to create a vivid, personal and very real sense of a person, as well as subtly crafting her as an unreliable narrator in her own unreliable words. But the thing which truly stood out to me more than all of that was how Atwood describes a scene. My memories of the book are the vivid mental pictures of the landscapes she describes. The weather particularly – the weather which feeds into the tone and themes and which becomes such a subtle but integrated part of the narrative – sticks firmly in my mind. I could see so clearly the empty blue skies of summer she called up, and the sharp edges of the headdresses, the stark colours of the clothing. Colour and sensation are massive focal points in how she creates her world, and it is this more than anything which sticks with me, because it creates a palpable atmosphere. It’s not just that you can imagine her summer, but you can feel and see it. And that’s just so, so rare in SFF that I read… and it’s not like I’m rereading comfort-trash all the time. I generally try to read well-written things, for the standards of the genre, because I do really like good writing… but there’s a step-change between most of that and this, and it’s something that stands out so strongly when I get it.
And then of course there’s the world she describes.
One of the most chilling… but in a weird way almost comforting… things about the book is how real it seems. How… detached from its own time. Like, I know when the book was written, and if I really really pay attention, I can get some sense of that when reading it. But otherwise, it feels sort of timeless. It could happen now. And for all that current events definitely are nudging it more towards realism than anyone wants, part of me feels like that might have been true in the entire intervening time between the writing and now. It feels far more universally applicable than… say… Animal Farm, as well as, frankly, being a better book. It hasn’t (yet? I hope this changes) got the sense of absurdity and unreality that Animal Farm has that really undercuts the seriousness of its message. This… feels so real. And the reactions of the women – the way that not everyone is good, and many of them are their own oppressors – the way there are people all the way down the spectrum of morality particularly emphasise this. It’s not a simple story. It accepts that people are complex, and not everyone follows the same logics, and it still manages to come out of that with a coherent narrative drive.
But somehow, this complex narrative about many people being absolutely horrible is a comfort. And I think part of that is solidarity. My general impression has been that the women who’ve read it and expressed opinions are not… shocked by it. It feels real in a way it doesn’t to the men. And I feel like part of that might be a feeling of, however much the scale is different, not feeling alone. Because this is grown out of a reality many women experience – expanded and overgrown as it may be – and so there’s a sense of understanding and… feeling like you’re believed? I’m not sure how to articulate it.
Mainly, it feels like a very very relevant story, and one that is deeply personal and human. Because the main beauty of it is the narrator, in all her unreliable glory. She’s torn between resentment and horror at her situation and acceptance, almost gratefulness. She’s not a fighter. She’s not a glorious rebel facing up to the evil regime. And that’s why she matters so much. She’s a survivor. She’s someone who puts down her head and gets by. Yes, she hates what her world is. But she lives. Yes, she takes the freedoms she’s given and enjoys them. But she hides them, quietly, sensibly and carefully. She’s who many of us would be, in a way we wouldn’t be the outspoken, strident fighter, consequences go hang. The book gives us her too, in Moira, but she’s someone to be admired, sometimes close and sometimes from a distance, not the voice that speaks directly to us. We’re not meant to identify with Moira, just wonder at her. And for all that sounds a somewhat grim indication of the mindset of most people… to me, at least, it felt real. And that felt so much more worthwhile than a story of noble and… unrealistic, in most people’s cases… dramatic fight and rebellion and turmoil and drama. Because most things aren’t like that.
I’m rambling now, so I’ll get to the point. Much like Wonder Woman, but in a very different direction, The Handmaid’s Tale is a book I found emotionally important, as well as objectively good. There is much to recommend it in the abstract – it is painfully well-written, moving, clever, insightful, horrifying and plausible – but where it really succeeds is the emotional. It feels real, and it feels important. And that’s… a very difficult thing pulled off beautifully. I felt no hesitation giving it five stars on Goodreads, and I honestly think it’s one of the best books I’ve ever read. I am definitely going to seek out more of Atwood’s work because this was just too… yeah.
Next up, a break towards something slightly lighter, ish, maybe – I’m currently reading The Book of Phoenix by Nnedi Okarofor, and so far it’s really really readable.
*This is still technically true, but I’ve now started reading something else that isn’t creeping me out with male gaze/sexist/casual racism swan stuff.