The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood (Books 2019, 15)
It’s to my shame that I hadn’t read this classic of modern literature before now. And it turns out, now that I have, that it’s really good. Surprise, surprise. I don’t really care for dystopias, as I’ve said before. Interesting that the book I linked to there had just won the Clarke, and the one we’re discussing was the inaugural winner of that award.
For the first few chapters I was distracted by wondering how this situation, this state, could have come to be. Strangely what I found difficult to cope with was not the restrictions, the rolling back of rights — they are horrific, but I could and can easily imagine an America (or, hell, maybe even a Britain) that could enact those laws.
No, what I found hardest to believe in was the dress codes. The way not just the Handmaids, but the marthas (domestic servants), econowives (lower-class, probably infertile women, assigned to lower-class men) and even Wives (the wives of the ruling-class men) all dress in the standard costume of their class.
Somehow I feel — or at least felt — that it would be harder to get everyone to dress the same way than to obey laws that restrict more important freedoms.
As the chapters went on, those concerns evaporated. The telling of the backstory through Offred’s reminiscences outlines a convincing route from 80s America to Gilead. Though a lot more could be told: it is only an outline. Still, it’s enough.
These days, with actual nazis poisoning our political discourse, and attempts to roll back reproductive rights even in France, it sometimes feels — as Atwood no doubt intended — that Gilead is not so much a fable as a warning.