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The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

October 13, 2017

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When Margaret Atwood wrote The Handmaid’s Tale, she made a rule—although it was dystopian speculative fiction, she would not include futuristic gadgets, no robots. And every oppressive law, every atrocity, had to be something that had happened at some point in the history of the world. “If I was to create an imaginary garden, I wanted the toads in it to be real,” she said in a New York Times interview. This eliminates the ability of the reader to dismiss the book as mere fabrication. There is no “that would never happen,” because it all, incredibly, has happened.

The book imagines a post-coup United States, now called the Republic of Gilead, a puritanical theocracy in which an entire caste of women is relegated to the role of concubines (the handmaids). Because the environment has grown toxic, fertility rates have declined sharply, so the handmaids are believed necessary and a luxury for the elite.

The main character, Offred (“Of Fred,” as she is owned by a man named Fred), is our vehicle through this horrific world. It’s through her eyes that we witness atrocities common in her society, like the abortion doctors hanging after a public execution.

Some of it feels a little forced, despite the “everything happened” rule, but the real brilliance of the novel is the revelation that the story we’re reading has been discovered and is being dissected by anthropologists far in the future. It is jarring, but places the story in a historical context alongside The Diary of Anne Frank. And after being emotionally invested in the story, intimate with the characters, the cold distance of future historians is disturbing.

The Handmaid’s Tale is a bleak but very good read. It deserves to be included on the list of best speculative fiction.

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