I have never read The Handmaid’s Tale.
With hindsight now that I’ve read this book, I totally should have done. In my sixth form years in highschool, the A-level English class were reading it while I was off doing my science thing. They were reading it alongside the work of Chaucer, so I’d assumed they were both of a muchness and too challenging to throw in alongside my workload (at the time I was reading Molecules of Emotion by Cadence Pert, so work that one out).
Now I wish that my friend had repeatedly beaten me about the head with her copy of The Handmaid’s Tale until I’d put down my textbooks and read it because Margaret Atwood, the lady of the kindliest name, is a dark minded, twisted genius.
Living in their car, surviving on tips, Charmaine and Stan are in a desperate state. So, when they see an advertisement for Consilience, a ‘social experiment’ offering stable jobs and a home of their own, they sign up immediately. All they have to do in return for suburban paradise is give up their freedom every second month – swapping their home for a prison cell. At first, all is well. But then, unknown to each other, Stan and Charmaine develop passionate obsessions with their ‘Alternates,’ the couple that occupy their house when they are in prison. Soon the pressures of conformity, mistrust, guilt and sexual desire begin to take over.
I went into this book thinking that it would be a touching love story, especially with a title like that (there I go judging a book by its cover!) but no. ‘The heart goes last’ after sweet, innocent Charmaine puts on her angel of death act and executes prisoners without asking any questions.
‘everyone has a shadow side, even fluffpots like her’
Atwood’s idea for the dystopian prison community is actually ingenious and something I think she created perfectly in this story, but her speciality is the creation and evolution of her characters. The baddies all have vulnerabilities and good qualities, while the main protagonists are raving lunatics hidden under an Elvis leotard and concern for the sexual health of chickens.
I think the moment that I knew this book was one that would stay with me forever was when I read the following immortal passage regarding sex robots:
‘”I don’t think they’ll ever replace the living and breathing,” says Gary.
“They said that about e-books,” says Kevin. “You can’t stop progress.”‘
From that point on, the story could have moved in any direction and I would have willingly followed it. The fact that it went in the direction of a brainwashed ex-prostitute who’d imprinted on a blue knitted teddybear made by prisoners was just a bonus in my opinion.
This was a wholly enjoyable read, I managed to read the entire thing while my friends were running at an extreme running event in the pouring rain a couple of weeks ago while I was sat in a warm car eating a hog roast sandwich so I gained extra satisfaction with this particular book.
I’ll definitely be reading more work by Margaret Atwood, her sense of humour appealed to me immensely and as we all know, dystopian fantasy literature is the best!
‘Parked in a hotel lobby and eavesdropping while some mildewed hen has an orgasm.’ ~ Margaret Atwood is a literary genius.