Despite famously winning the Arthur C. Clarke Award for science fiction, Margaret Atwood has always maintained that The Handmaid’s Tale is an exercise is ‘speculative fiction’.

Wrenched from her husband and daughter, the unnamed heroine is given the choice of breeding for the regime or dying a slow death in the Colonies (other states of the former USA captured by the regime), clearing up radiation-ravaged corpses. Hope must still live in her, as she chooses the former. While ‘Offred’ is not a rebel by inclination, her subjugation by the state is not total. Despite being given one role, one room, one outfit, one man to have sex (or ritualised rape) with and no reading material at all, she remains complex in thought and deed. In inevitable moments of despair and horror, she tries to render her mind neutral (‘After you’d come to terms, after the first shock, it was better to be lethargic’), but her thoughts are continually shot through with gleeful visions of violence and mischief (coveting Serena Joy’s garden shears and a kitchen knife, swinging her hips subtly as she walks by checkpoints to turn on the young sentries) and her actions perilous (visits to the Commander and Nick, discussing the resistance with Ofglen). The true rebels of the story, for good or ill, are Offred’s bitter, radical feminist mother (who we meet in flashback, where the heroine seems embarrassed by her) and her harsh, seditionary best friend Moira, a well-drawn character who, as a lesbian feminist, could have easily been an archetype.

Through the flashbacks to life before the coup, we get a sense of what’s been lost and the attendant assault on the emotions that remembering can bring. Offred belongs to the first generation of Handmaids (‘I am a refugee from the past’) and despite the fading memory of her daughter and husband, we get the sense that she is grateful for having known freedom, as she thinks in despair of how the girls born after the regime came to power will never know any different: ‘They’ll always have been in white… they’ll always have been silent.’ Atwood’s vivid evocation of how the mundane ‘ambushes’ Offred highlights the sheer oddness of constancy in a world irrevocably changed: the changing seasons, a dishtowel, tourists with cameras. The manifold changes do not however, include a new language, as in Nineteen-Eighty Four and A Clockwork Orange, but rather a revival of an ancient mode of Old Testament-style speech (‘ “Blessed be the fruit," she says to me. "May the Lord open,” I answer’). Hanging over the whole narrative is the sense of sweaty, prickling terror: the pacing Aunts with their electric cattle prods, the bodies hanged at the wall, the salvagings, the moment Offred discovers Ofglen, her shopping partner and resistance fighter,  has been replaced by a true believer in the regime (‘I feel cold, seeping all over my skin like water.’)

Ironically, Atwood shows the avowedly misogynistic Republic of Gilead to be a women’s world: the regime’s ideology could not function without them. But it is no matriarchy. Women are instrumental but powerless. The only women who wield any power are Wives and Aunts. But while the former, as represented by the glacial Serena Joy, are little more than potentially treacherous Ladies who Lunch, the latter are allowed to read (forbidden to all other women) and to torture Handmaids. Alas, we learn little of the Wives. Serena Joy is presented as a woman with ice running through her veins, with no empathy. But we do get the sense that, given her past celebrity, she’s frustrated in the world she's helped create. However that is one single case. Are all wives fearsome martinets on the surface and yearning inside, or are some as cowed as Handmaids? The portrayal of the Aunts however, is an example of Atwood’s deft humour: the cosiness of the title which belies their cruelty; Aunt Lydia saying they’re trying to foster ‘a spirit of camaraderie’ among women. This comes not long after a ‘testament’ session in which a girl confesses she was once gang-raped; the other Handmaids are forced to chant in her face that it was her own fault (a scene that inevitably brings to mind the ‘Two Minutes’ Hate’ in Orwell’s Nineteen-Eighty Four).

The novel’s weaknesses are its male characters. The Commander, for all his supposed malevolent authority, is drawn as an avuncular figure with a few right-wing views. Maybe that was the point, but it’s hard to imagine such a man could be one of the architects of the regime, as the fictional epilogue suggests (the epilogue itself is perhaps a mistake, for it functions like a ‘making of’ documentary, stripping away the dark majesty of the story). Nick is merely a sexual object, though he’s arguably filling a role to which female characters are usually relegated.

Despite the slight implausibility of the swiftness with which America falls under the regime, Atwood’s page-turner succeeds in its speculation – but it’s the speculation of life before the coup that rings most true in the 21st century: the mainstreaming of porn, the popularity of plastic payment and the rise (if not triumph – not yet anyway) of the American religious right. The events of the coup even have a scent of prophecy, in that it is nominally blamed on Islamists.

Oddly, radical feminism (in particular Women against Pornography) is suggested as one of the elements that helped lead to Gilead. It’s highly unlikely Atwood is recommending caution over unchecked radical feminism. Rather, it seems, she’s saying that tyrannies co-opt the views of those they wish to subjugate – but at a huge price.


Other Reviews

The Listener: 'Moving, vivid and terrifying. I only hope it's not prophetic'

Independent: 'Out of a narrative shadowed by terror, gleam sharp perceptions, brilliant images and sardonic wit'

Time Out: 'Powerful... admirable'

Sunday Times: 'The images of brilliant emptiness are one of the most striking aspects of this novel about totalitarian blindness... the effect is chilling'