Monday, September 10, 2012

THE HANDMAID'S TALE


Review of THE HANDMAID'S TALE by MARGARET ATWOOD
(based on a review copy)

Anyone who read my review of THIEF EYES by Janni Lee Simner might recall my description of that book: "Reading this story is a little like walking into a dark tunnel. I can’t see where it’s going. I can’t even see very far in front of me, but once I emerge from the other end my surroundings are illuminated again." That line kept popping into my mind as I read THE HANDMAID'S TALE, due to its structure. Rather than a simple chronological story, a thread in the present interweaves with snippets from various time periods in the past. From the first chapter, there's an eerie and unsettling sense, but understanding builds slowly (unless you read the back, which summarizes aspects you don't otherwise discover for a while).

THE HANDMAID'S TALE falls into a category of what I've come to think of as "sneak attack" books. I don't realize how much I've invested until it slaps me in the face. In this case, the characters start off as foggy blurs with the reader plopped down in the middle of their everyday, but certainly not ordinary, lives. With each scene, the characters solidify bit by bit until they feel like real people. By the time I understood Offred’s world, I liked her almost as a friend, and that was an unfortunate combination: understanding and liking.

Atwood creates an unusual ending, too, with an interesting technique. Offred's story cuts off and readers can imagine happy or tragic endings, but will never know for sure. However, the ending of the book comes after the "Historical Notes" in which a class even farther in the future than Offred's generation attends a lecture discussing the political upheaval of her time. Don’t skip over that part!

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