Set in the United States after a nuclear holoocaust leaving the vast majority dead or sterile, The Handmaid's Tale is a glimpse beyond the looking glass into a world almost too terrifying to comprehend. Narrated through the eyes of Offred, a brood mare for the Commander, Atwood paints a vivid tale about the horrors of misogyny under a theocratic dictatorship.
The writing is gripping and sharp. Brutally descriptive (yet minimalistic) sentences underscore the profound inhumanity of societies that have abandoned compassion in favour of mere pragmatic, practical, ends-justify-the-means policies that have rendered half of the population to act as expendable labour for the other half. Sleep is not always readily available, and the hangman's noose is never more than a failed duty away.
Women, save those fortunate enough to be pregnant or married to those in authority, are treated as abject slaves, valued only for their instrumental values. Thusly treated as means, they are preserved rather than respected. All means for suicide such as ceiling fans and hooks have been painstakingly removed. For that matter, so are their names, with the women being referred to only with respect to their owners. Offred. Ofglen. Even a woman's name, Martha, has been appropriated for use as maids. Their station signifies their lack of fertility, which has led to a loss in her value in this futuristic living nightmare. Individuality has been all but eradicated, and gossip is now a luxury. The parallels with the world today, especially the Middle East, are too obvious to overlook, and this is probably intentional. The audiobook is impeccable, with Claire Danes' deadpan reading adding near-copious quantities of tension and foreboding to the mix.
Before being allowed to leave the "boarding house", Offred is required to don garments that shroud her from sight. Her rank is designated by her the colour of her dress, red. If her Commander was to tire of his wife and elect Offred for this honour, she would be garbed in blue. The Commander himself wears black. If that wasn't enough, she is perpetually shadowed by another human incubator, who functions as her spy. Offred, likewise, functions as her companion's spy. Things only get worse as the details of this alternate/possible future are revealed. Each new page is akin to a door inside an authentic haunted house. From the first chapter, a sense that there are no happy endings for these oppressed slaves is engraved into the reader's consciousness.
This is a must-have book, and belongs beside 1984 and Brave New World. This apotheosis of literary talent should not be overlooked.
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