Publisher: Vintage Classics (25th May 2017)
Print Length: 325 pages
The novel is clearly crafted by an expert. It starts with a description of the minutia of Offred the Handmaid’s circumstances and gradually expands to give a picture of a psuedo-religious, patriarchal, post-calamitous U.S. society; each progression in the narrative revealing further horrific intricacies. As you progress through the chapters you start to realise that Offred is not the only victim of the regime, as you might have first supposed. Everyone, no matter how high their status, is governed by the strictures imposed upon them. Thus, even the privileged Commanders, who occupy the apex of each household’s pyramid of power, are inhibited. The Wives control the day-to-day running of the household and the Commanders operate within their purview. While the Wives are themselves constrained by the values and principles of the regime. Hence, you are immersed in a world where trust is non-existent and everyone’s actions are at best questionable, and at worst carry a double-edged danger.
Creating a world where people are principally identified by the function they perform reinforces the ubiquitous power of the State. Hence the names Handmaid, Martha, Aunt, Wives, Daughter, Angel, Guardian, Eyes or Commander acts to strip each person of their individuality. Interestingly, the author has chosen generic names for woman that are gender specific, but generic names for males are indeterminate of gender. Again this tends to subconsciously subvert the reader’s perceptions, building on the theme that nobody and nothing can be trusted.
Structuring the narrative as memoir has advantages and disadvantages. While this truly earmark’s the story as Offred’s story, seen through her perspective, I found the indirect reported speech somewhat laborious to read in places. It is so much easier on the eye to have each character’s speech delimited by quotation punctation and self-contained within its own paragraph. The author may have chosen to structure the narrative in this way in order to emphasise Offred’s sense of isolation, but I think this was more than offset by some introspective passages that I personally found akin to trying to make headway through a three-feet-deep puddle of treacle that spanned pages.
Another negative for me was the fact that I didn’t really feel the story started until the half-way point in the word count, the first half seemingly intent on building the setting and explaining the precursory events that facilitated the founding of Offred’s world. So, for example, having a scene devoted to the mass wedding of Daughters to Angels appeared to me to be superfluous. I am a reader who wants to see a character’s fictive conflict develop chapter by chapter, and this didn’t happen until Offred entered the private study, and world, of her Commander. However, once this point was reached, the plot gripped me and I was anxious to read on. From this juncture I felt an empathy for Offred and her plight.
The novel’s denouement is effective. It uses a literary device that I’m particularly fond of: it reprises and elucidates an occurrence from the novel’s inception, thus closing a circle and neatly bringing the plot back upon itself. In this case the occurrence is one of State executions. Very early on the reader is introduced to the corpses of men hanging from hooks from The Wall, and the novel’s culmination is initiated with The Salvagings, the execution of miscreant women. And again, another favourite literary device of mine, the novel finishes with an incident that allows the reader to create their own ending, good or bad. Here, the uplifting interpretation is that Offred has embarked on the first steps to freedom across the border. The darker interpretation is that she has been mislead and she has been taken into custody for her offences against the State’s dictates.
The one big downside for me was that the book is, in places, dated. Hence, from the epilogue’s perspective of 2195, it implies that computer printouts are the definitive computer record, when in reality, since the late 1990s digital files have been the preeminent form of computer archive – and who knows what the future may hold. Indeed, for me, the epilogue somewhat spoiled the story. It attempted to further explain and justify events and circumstances that would have best been left to the reader’s imagination. Especially, as already indicated, the author is inhibited by a mid-1980s technological insight.
Overall, I enjoyed the book and will definitely reread it at some time. Recommended.