I know that in the past I’ve typically reviewed YA books on this blog, but as I slowly (and rather belatedly as my A-Level English teachers may argue) transition into reading adult novels, I thought I’d share some of my favourites and write some reviews.
I absolutely loved reading The Handmaid’s Tale, a set text for my A-Level course, and it’s one of the few set texts that I’ve read with enjoyment and ease. This book is probably one for older YA readers and is great for fans of dystopia. Check out my non-spoilery review below to discover more…
Offred is a Handmaid in the Republic of Gilead. She may leave the home of the Commander and his wife once a day to walk to food markets whose signs are now pictures instead of words because women are no longer allowed to read. She must lie on her back once a month and pray that the Commander makes her pregnant, because in an age of declining births, Offred and the other Handmaids are valued only if their ovaries are viable. Offred can remember the years before, when she lived and made love with her husband, Luke; when she played with and protected her daughter; when she had a job, money of her own, and access to knowledge. But all of that is gone now…
The Handmaid’s Tale is set in a dystopian world where the lives of women (and men, though to a lesser extent) are strictly controlled. Offred (the protagonist) is a Handmaid, whose job is to bear children for elite couples, in this case the Commander and his wife Serena Joy. Sounds pretty messed up I know. I stumbled across this book because a lot of reviews of one of my fave YA books (Louise O’Neill’s Only Ever Yours) had compared it to The Handmaid’s Tale and as a lover of dystopia and feminist literature, I just had to pick it up!
What is fascinating about this particular dystopian text is that it isn’t set in some thousands of years in the future alternate universe (like in YA series such as The Hunger Games, Delirium, Cinder, Divergent e.t.c) but is instead set in a very scarily different version of modern-day. The protagonist (Offred) recounts memories from before everything changed, talking about mundane things like smoking, shopping and reading magazines, and it makes the dystopian world even more frightening because you suddenly be able to envision it all happening in the 21st Century.
I mentioned earlier that I’m studying this book at A-Level, and it’s for a unit on social and political protest (and this novel was rife with it.) I consider myself a rampant feminist, so I absolutely loved all the messages in this novel. There were so many poignant messages and Attwood cleverly criticised society’s perception of things such as rape and it surprised me how relevant this book is today (despite being written 30 years ago) and showed that although gender equality has come a long way, we still have so far to go.
“But whose fault was it? Aunt Helena says, holding up one plump finger. Her fault, her fault, her fault, we chant in unison. Who led them on? Aunt Helena beams, pleased with us. She did. She did. She did.”
One strange thing is that The Handmaid’s Tale lacks a lot of the things I look for in a good book. Sure it’s dystopia (one of my favourite genres) and has plenty of political and cultural significance, but it lacks the sense of adventure, heartwarming romance, fast pace and obvious narrative arc that most YA books have. However the fact that I loved it despite all this is really a testament to its greatness. It doesn’t need a simple and speedy plot because of the beautiful writing, intriguing characters and fascinating setting, and the fact that romance doesn’t drive the plot was very refreshing.
Another interesting thing about this novel is that the main character (a role I generally empathise a lot with and relate to) is a mystery, in the sense that the reader doesn’t know a lot about her and is drip fed more and more information as the story progresses, and I found it interesting to have a character I empathised with greatly but didn’t fully understand or see myself as.
I mentioned the pace of the novel earlier, and part of the reason for its steady (yet gripping) pace is the setting, which is quite limited and generally focuses on Offred’s daily routine, showing her walks and her life inside her “home” (I use that word very lightly.) At one point whilst reading I reached that infamous “oh snap” moment when I realised there were only a few chapters left and I had no idea what the ending would be, but something was about to go down, and the pace sped up along with my heartbeat. As a result of the steady pace, the book was a bit more challenging to read than YA novels, which I normally speed through in a couple of hours, but taking my time meant I was even more engrossed in the world of the novel and that I enjoyed the ending even more.
Another thing I loved about this book was the structure, It is mostly told in first person narrative, but flashbacks are frequently used to aid the storytelling. If you’re anything like me, you might be put off by that because YA flashbacks are often tedious and something I shamefully skip! But I promise these flashbacks are very interesting and offer insight about Offred’s past and the way society came to be how it is in the novel.
Finally (and this is a teeny tiny spoiler so look away if you don’t want that), the novel had an ambiguous ending. I know endings like this are like Marmite; lots of my friends despise them, especially the ending of Lauren Oliver’s Requiem. But I really love ambiguous endings (especially in dystopia) as no real story is ever truly resolved and I like the sense of unsurity and the buildup of all the questions I wish I could ask the author about what happens.
10/10 for The Handmaid’s Tale
An enthralling story I loved so much that I would honestly recommend it to strangers on the street.