Thursday, 8 November 2007

Book Review - The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood

Award winning Canadian fiction writer features at British Literary Festival

October saw tens of thousands of arts enthusiasts descend upon the pretty little spa-town of Cheltenham for its ten-day literary festival, where the big names of the book world featured in abundance. The lucky ticket holders had the chance to take part in discussion and debate led by key cultural celebrities, from Helen Mirren to William Hague. One acclaimed author who didn’t manage to make it to the festival in person, however, was the prolific Canadian feminist, poet, novelist and activist, Margaret Atwood. She chose instead to invent a long distance contraption entitled ‘The Long Pen’, enabling her to autograph her work from her home in Toronto via the internet, whilst wearing her ‘fuzzy slippers, and that is a big plus because there’s nothing better than comfortable shoes’, as she told one British newspaper. Quite.

This is entirely characteristic of a woman who regularly takes the world and turns it on its head in her novels, which are sometimes graphically dystopian and futuristic, and yet often also piercingly sensitive to the universal human condition. ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’, which won Atwood two literary prizes back in the eighties, features this absorbing ability to get to the very core of human experience, within the foreign surroundings of an imagined sci-fi world. Set in a Massachusetts university town in the aftermath of nuclear disaster and civil war, the renamed Republic of Gilead is under the control of Christian Fundamentalists, who have attempted to combat widespread sterility by reverting to old testament practice. This means that fertile young women who have sinned – unmarried mothers, divorcees, adulteresses – are assigned to the wives of the Commanders in the new regime as ‘handmaids’, in order to be impregnated and ensure the future of the human race.

Written from the perspective of one such handmaid, ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ is at once horrifying and beautiful, with the pervasive poetry of Atwood’s formidable talent seeping from each word that warns of what the world could become, if we don’t begin to appreciate our freedom and protect our environment. The fundamentalist politics involved are reminiscent of Aldous Huxley and George Orwell, but the voice is much subtler, almost seductively reticent, and, of course, female. Feminist preoccupations permeate the narrative, yet do not diminish the impact of Atwood’s exploration of the seemingly innate human ability to destroy: ourselves, each other, the environment. These are themes of resounding relevance, relevance that has only augmented in the two decades since the novel’s publication.

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