Monday, September 28, 2009

Take the challenge and read this book



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.

21 comments:

Yat-Yee said...

I think it's precisely the power that these books have, the power that you describe in your experience in reading this book, that puts fear and fans prejudice in people's hearts.

May we always strive to keep our minds open.

Davin Malasarn said...

So many people have recommended Margaret Atwood to me. I will check her out. I've read some of her shorter pieces, but never a novel.

Bish Denham said...

Isn't something that a book about burning books is "challenged?"

Tricia J. O'Brien said...

Yat-Yee: You are so right. Many people fear new ideas and power in others.

Davin: I hope you enjoy it. Of course, I love, love, love this book and am looking forward to the new release.

Bish: Hi! Yes, it's fascinating and weird, indeed, that a book about burning books (Fahrenheit 451) is challenged.

Tabitha Bird said...

Oh wow. Love those lines you pulled out of the book:) That girl can write!

Fiorella Ormeno said...

Such an inspiring piece about one of my favourite books of all times. Makes me want to pick it up once more. I had the honour of attending a talk by Atwood a few years back and she was explaining how powerful words are and how fiction can turn into reality in no time. The banning of books is thus no surprise.

Tess said...

I have heard of this book - is it really so lovely? Must put it on the list.

Tricia J. O'Brien said...

Tabitha: Oh yes, she can. I'm going in search of her latest, The Year of the Flood, hoping I enjoy it, too.

Fiorella: Welcome. I am so pleased you enjoyed the post and love the book. How lucky to hear her speak, and it sounds like she gave a powerful message. Thanks for sharing that.

Tess: Lovely is not the word I would choose to describe it, because the subject is harrowing and deeply disturbing. But despite the brutality of her situation, the main character finds ways to cope, and, to me, that is the essence of hope. And, of course, the writing is superb.

storyqueen said...

Tricia-I am such a chicken. I saw part of the movie once and now am terrified of the book. It is probably sooooo incredibly good, but I was so disturbed by the parts I saw of the movie that I can't even think of picking it up.

Just call me a wuss.

Maybe someday. After all, I finally read (and loved) The Book Thief.

Shelley

Donna said...

I remember breathlessly reading THE HANDMAID'S TALE. A friend loaned me Margaret Atwood's 2000 novel, THE BLIND ASSASSIN, a tale within a tale within a tale. I'm loving it. THE YEAR OF THE FLOOD is next.

Tricia J. O'Brien said...

Shelley: I never watched the film. Loved the book too much to chance being bitterly disappointed. I really think you will be glad when you finally read it.

Donna: She is a stunningly good writer.

PJ Hoover said...

Wow, you make this book sound appealing! I'll keep it in mind.

Suzanne said...

Read it. Loved it. Read it again. Loved it more. Saw the movie, Didn't like it. Had to read it ONE MORE TIME (to get the bad movie taste out of my mouth) Loved it again.

Tricia J. O'Brien said...

PJ: It is what I call an important book, one that weaves itself into the fabric of your being.

Suzanne: Somehow I knew you'd be with me on this one. :)

Yvonne said...

If I'd seen the movie first I wouldn't have bothered with the novel, and I'm so glad that is not the case. This book, together with THE WOMEN'S ROOM (have any of you read that one?)opened my young eyes to what it was to be a women. I should probably read it again, as Suzanne said, to get the bad movie taste out of my mouth. I particularly remember the chilling part at the beginning of the novel when the protagonist goes to the bank to withdraw money and realizes that her bank card has been invalidated. That is how it begins....restrict a person's access to money and credit and what are you left with?? No way out.

Robyn Campbell said...

Okay, you got me. I'll read it! After all I trust my pal Tricia! I'll let you know what I think. :)

Tricia J. O'Brien said...

Yvonne: Most books do not make good movies, because the deeper layers and richness of language are lost by putting it into a visual medium. So I did not see the film version, knowing this book was just too meaningful for me. (I did like what Peter Jackson did with LOTR, but most times my reaction ranges from disappointed to hopping mad if they botch it badly.)

Robyn: Okay, back at ya. Just remember, this is not light entertainment. It's disturbing, to put it mildly. I hope you will find the terrible beauty and resilience of human spirit in it.

Linda Kage said...

I always loved the stort story, "Rape Fantasies" by Margaret Atwood. She's a wonderful author. I bet "The Handmaid's Tale" is pretty good too. Thanks for the recommendation.

Tricia J. O'Brien said...

Linda: Haven't read that short story, but she is incredible. Hope you are equally astounded by Handmaid's Tale.

Sybel said...

Pat. You turned my onto The Handmaid's Tale when it first came out. I was riveted from the first page. I had to put it down to get to the Ontario Airport, but I arrived a bit early, so I finished the book in the car. I sat hyperventilating and speechless and barely made my flight.

My 16yo daughter just finished it, and, I'm pleased to say, had the same reaction. She couldn't stop talking about it.

Tricia J. O'Brien said...

Hi there, Sybel: I'd forgotten that, but I am awed and pleased that it impacted you and your daughter so much. I am grateful for Banned Books Week, because it made me think about the books on the list and pull that one off the shelf again.