I don't know if men react to THE HANDMAID'S TALE as women do. Or if anybody experiences what I do. It wounds me and heals me. It terrifies me and comforts me. It astounds me and fortifies me.
It is most extraordinary storytelling told with full writerly skill by prize-winning Canadian author Margaret Atwood.
Take, for instance, some lines early in the book about the ordinariness of the protagonist's life: "We were people who were not in the papers. We lived in the blank white spaces at the edges of print. It gave us more freedom. We lived in the gaps between the stories."
Or this as she throws her body on top of her child's to protect her from the guns of pursuers: "I don't want to smother her, instead I curl myself around her, keeping my hand over her mouth. There's breath and the knocking of my heart, like pounding, at the door of a house at night, where you thought you would be safe."
I shut the book cover last night, after reading the story again, and felt as if I'd been on journey to a place that exists in imagination but has foundation in our world. I had searched my bookshelves for old friends and this one reached out her arms. I am so grateful that I embraced her again.
This is Banned Book Week and I decided to participate through blogging and reading books that have been challenged, a word used to describe an effort by someone in a community to have a book removed from a library or school. Published in 1986, THE HANDMAID'S TALE, was among the 100 most frequently challenged books between 1990-2000.
Like Ray Bradbury's FAHRENHEIT 451, another challenged book, this is a dystopian novel where knowledge and the written word are considered too dangerous for everyday folks like us. And, as in Lois Lowry's THE GIVER, also challenged, a centralized power is in control of all economic and social aspects of the society.
When I picked up Atwood's book to re-read it, I only remembered the most harrowing aspects of the tale, so it was almost like reading a new book. I was swept away with the pace and suspense and totally enamored of the rich language: "I lie in bed, still trembling. You can wet the rim of a glass and run your finger around the rim and it will make a sound. This is what I feel like: this sound of glass. I feel like the word shatter."
The book is most often challenged for sexual reference and for its portrayal of fundamentalist Christian doctrine taken to ultimate extremism. But the sex in the book is sad and horrifying, not titillating or gratuitous. The protagonist is called Offred, her real name taken away, as she is forced to become a handmaid to a Commander and his wife. Her role is to bear children for them as Jacob uses Rachel's maid in Genesis. The ruling fundamentalists think they are creating a better world where women are protected, but, as history has shown repeatedly, absolute power corrupts. What they've created is brutal.
The book doesn't end with a concrete resolution. You are left to imagine what may have been the final fate of this woman. In an epilogue, which Atwood calls Historical Notes, a future conference of academics discuss with aloofness and jest this strange period and the tapes left behind by the woman. As a writer, I was fascinated at the view this discussion gives of Atwood's world building.
This a book to be devoured. And protected. Always.