Before we dive into the discussion, we just need to get a few housekeeping notes out the way. As you all know, this is our first book, so there may be some things that’ll need tweaking or ironing out. This discussion’ll be a bit of a trial run – please bear with us, as we’re still learning how best to run this. The comments on this post are not moderated to facilitate smoother, faster discussion. If you see something problematic, please feel free to contact us directly through the twitter account or through comments on another post (even unmoderated, all comments get sent to Stilli’s inbox, so someone will see what you have to say!). Our commenting policy still applies (see here), and comments may be edited or removed without warning at our discretion.
This book contains various common triggers (particularly rape/sexual assault); please put yourself first and exercise good self-care when joining this discussion. If you need support, the safe space for this book can be found here.
And now, without further ado, let us present…
Poppy’s thoughts on The Handmaids Tale
Thanks for coming to read this! It’s my first book review in, oh, many many years, so please be a bit patient with me. This is more an emotional review than an intellectual one, I’m afraid, but I’m sure the discussion’s going to raise loads of great points, so I’ll just give you a few of my disjointed thoughts and let you all take it away!
I really enjoyed this book. It was moving, upsetting, distresssing, and disturbing, so it sounds a bit funny to say, but I did honestly like it. Perhaps it’s because I’ve not really read anything that falls under science fiction before – this was my first introduction to the building of a dystopian future, and I found it fascinating. From the very first line I was absolutely desperate to know why society changed in that way, what made it become that, and (most crucial of all) how could anyone let it happen?
I know Margaret Atwood insists that this book isn’t science fiction, as all of the things in in the book have been done at some point in history; and of course, even without that statement we know that atrocities are performed all the time. It’s just… We talk about protest and direct action, and I think we’d all like to think that we’d stand up, we’d say no. I would, at least. When she told us about the day her card stopped working and she was fired, I expected protests, demonstrations, some kind of resistance… And then I thought about how strong our self-preservation instincit is, and how people do do terrible things to protect themselves, how they stay quiet to keep themselves and their families safe. Do you think you’d stand up and shout? Honestly?
I found it so powerful finding out how society had changed through flashbacks; it kept me reading, unable to put the book down because I was desperate to find out more. I did feel as though I missed a few things, though; most of the references are recognisable, but I bet I would’ve caught more if I were older and from North America.
I couldn’t quite grasp why the handmaidens weren’t more valued and respected. They’re the only fertile women, and society wanted and needed children – why were these fertile women not venerated? I thought it might be a desperate need to keep them under control. If the handmaids were respected, they would realise that in fact their bodies (and thus they) were vital to everything; they had the power, so they should be in control. Of course, all your power coming from your body is discussed – but only sexually.
I was disgusted, and found it breathtakingly hypocritical, that after everything the totalitarian regime had done, they still had places like where the Commander took Offred, where the women were dressed in the way that was illegal. As well as this being men limiting and controlling women in yet another way, this leads into the wider reality that those in power (almost?) always have one rule for themselves, and another for everyone else.
It did really shock me that Offred wanted to have sex with Nick – I instinctively thought that after her sexual experiences she wouldn’t be able to take any pleasure in it at all. Thinking more about it… Perhaps it made her feel human again, having sex with feelings and emotions, too? Or maybe it was a way to confirm that she could have control over her sexual encounters? I hope that’s not an offensive thing to say – I’m very fortunate in that I’ve never experienced any serious sexual assault, so it’s hard for me to imagine. When I actually stop and consider it, of course survivors of sexual violence may well (and often do) want to have sex again, I’m just… Expressing my initial, instinctive surprise, I guess? Perhaps it’s just the lack of experience here talking.
Regarding the (unnamed) daughter, I found I only really cared about her when she was mentioned; when she was off-screen I completely forgot that she even existed. I’ve had people on Twitter saying that they’ve seen this story differently since they’ve become mothers, so perhaps it’s a lack of experience again? I was almost indifferent to her; I felt as if she and Luke were unimportant characters whose only purpose were to flesh out her previous life and provide contrast between then and now. My only interest was in Offred and the characters in the current setting, truthfully. Why do you think the daughter was nameless? [Stilli’s note: there are some interesting comments on this subject on this blog.]
We’ve been conditioned to expect happy endings – nearly all the media we consume has a ‘and they lived happily ever after’ type ending. So while I instinctively wanted an escape or a revolution, I didn’t truly think the story would end that way as I thought the book was trying to be more serious and ‘true’. I was relieved when the van came, both for myself and for Offred, because it provided closure – she escaped, I didn’t need to fret about her anymore. But there was also a part of my that was disappointed, because I felt it was too cliche to fit in with the rest of the story.
Overall, as I said, I really enjoyed this book. It was terrifying, because I could see the parallels with historical, and even some current, events, but that’s made me (even more) determined to stand up for women’s rights to decide what happens to our own bodies. I just hope that I can be brave enough.
What did you think?