The Handmaid’s Tale

I was aware of the 2017 TV Series of the same name. Then I saw this book strategically placed near the checkout at my local library. I picked it up and I am not disappointed. It took me a week to read it and I binged the last 100 pages on a lazy Sunday.

The first thing I noticed that there was no quotes for conversations. For example one sentence is: Go to the Colonies, Rita said. Just like that, no quotes. The first time I noticed it was midway through the book. It was when one of the characters asks “Do you think God listens?”. Then I flipped back a few pages to try to find if this was the first place the author used it. No, it was not. She has used it before but sparingly. I recollect that Isaac Asimov used this strategy in a short story Cal in his collection Gold, 1995. When Cal is thinking, there are no quotes. Offred's narrative do not start off live. She started recording it sometime after the incidents happen. This makes me think that the omission of quotes is her recollection of the conversations.

Many books and movies that I’ve read switch timelines using flash-back scenes. In this book the author uses 3 timelines. The first timeline is where the lead character, Offred, is narrating. The second timeline is in the near past when Offred is being trained to be a handmaid. The third timeline is the distant past that deals with some of her childhood. It includes her mother, child, husband, friends - everything before the dystopia happens.

The dystopia is very plausible. The Wall is reminiscent of the Berlin Wall. The suspicion towards each other is true in any wartime or conflict. Every country has classes of society one way or the other. The Aunt’s reminded me of strict nuns at Catholic schools or even Ballet teachers of old. This was the time when corporal punishment with canes was commonplace. The concept of the handmaid is biblical too. Wives had their husbands conceive children through their maids. There are the weekly shopping trips. The handmaids go shopping in pairs which is what you see with school kids or on college campuses. There are still businesses making money on religious artifacts and gentlemen’s clubs. There are annual physicals and dula or midwife assisted births. Hanging is the most common but there are gruesome deaths too. There is a resistance movement as well. There is the colonies that are labor camps. And of course, all banned things are available via the black market.

It is a female dominated script and the lead character, Offred, is female. It is through her eyes that we see the dystopia. The fact that jumps right out is that the world seems to revolve around handmaids. You see it in the Wife’s resentment, the maid’s hopes and the men’s actions. Yet, men, women, straight or otherwise boil down to one function. The Wife seems to be a aristocratic title, then there is an Econowife that’s derogatory. There is a Commander that is head of the household. There is a chauffeur, a cook, a maid. There are spies and there is cruel and unusual punishment. The pace pics up when people start to bend and break the rules.

The author does a brilliant work of explaining things. She distills them to a single sentences. For example: Context is all. This statement describes how context determines the effect of things. Sometimes my mind would wander and read the words but not comprehend them. It happens to me on all books I read. But with this book, I found myself going back and reading the paragraph again. I was afraid to miss a philosophical gem.

This book reminded me of the initial part of the book Life of Pi by Yann Martel. In that book, the author discusses that animals in a zoo prefer their routine instead of the freedom of the wild. The handmaid’s life felt like that. There is the wild character Moria who takes a different path. So does Janine. Both end up in undesirable circumstances. There is a point in the story where Offred is reckless and ends up praying that she would be good if she were safe. The handmaid seems to be the most prized of all. The Commander indulges her and so does the Wife. In different ways. The maids wait over her. But there are different types of freedom as the author explains early on.

I liked this book. It starts off slow but picks up pace as the author establishes landscape and characters. There is always conflict either in Offred’s mind or what happens to people around her. I felt Offred’s panic and her fear. I was reckless with her and I hoped with her. I yearned for things when she did. The author has written it so that the reader will empathize with Offred. Stay with the book and Offred till the end. This book will not disappoint.