Context: Read this while we hosted many villagers on our large veranda in PNG.
I’ve read a number of Atwoods but nothing comes close to this. Somehow she’s managed to pull off a novel which is captivating and deeply questioning at the same time. It’s much more intense than anything else she’s ever written, and she can be pretty intense.
It’s set in the near future, the tale that is, and the nearness is what makes this sci-fi work. Too divorced from us and we’d be talking something so remote from today that it would resemble Blade Runner (although interestingly, the year in the film is supposed to be 2019!) Anyway, Handmaid’s Tale is so close to the present day that you know that only a few years before the setting you know things were ‘normal.’ This lends the book a very creepy quality.
And you never really do find out the whole story about how they all ended up this way anyway. It’s a world where Christianity has gone mad and twisted scripture to a horrific degree. This is a great device because it means you are, like the protagonist Offred, you never quite know why things are the way they are. Like her, your mind is full of questions and you can go nowhere to find the answers. You just have to keep on with the story.
The book is beautifully balanced. Atwood spoon-feeds you context so that you are never in control of how much you know. Much remains a mystery, especially at the end which concludes with a research paper being read at a conference thousands of years in the future and what must be the epitome of postmodern last lines. This is, of course, exactly how it should be: captivated and entranced you are at her disturbing mercy.