The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood
Offred is a Handmaid in the Republic of Gilead. She may leave the home of the Commander and his wife once a day to walk to food markets whose signs are now pictures instead of words because women are no longer allowed to read. She must lie on her back once a month and pray that the Commander makes her pregnant, because in an age of declining births, Offred and the other Handmaids are valued only if their ovaries are viable. Offred can remember the years before, when she lived and made love with her husband, Luke; when she played with and protected her daughter; when she had a job, money of her own, and access to knowledge. But all of that is gone now...
Speculative fiction is about recognizing uncomfortable truths. Authors take everyday things that may only be slightly disturbing to us and introduce a society where they've become the law. We want to believe that societies like Gilead couldn't exist, and it's the author's job to convince us, to make us believe.
Set just after the initial rise of Gilead, when there are still people who remember "the time before," The Handmaid's Tale sets itself apart from most other spec-fic/dystopian books. Atwood builds the world of Gilead slowly; Offred doesn't so much explain it as mention in passing its various workings. Some parts of the rise of Gilead are less plausible than others, but taken as a whole, the world-building is convincing. The result is a complete, unsettling portrait of a society where all actions are policed, women are only valuable as domestic servants and childbearers, and no one is truly free.
Offred's narration is brutally honest and expressive. She relates daily life as a Handmaid personally but without complaining; her flashbacks to the time before are filled with longing. Readers will ache for Offred - whose real name we don't even know. I read this book with a mix of fury, shock, and frantic hope. The plot is driven mainly by Offred and her reactions to life in Gilead, and it's the strong connection readers will find with her that keeps the book interesting.
Through Offred and Gilead, Atwood explores the impact of misogyny and religious extremism (as well as a few other important ideas) by taking them to excess. Regardless of whether or not you find the idea of a Gilead-like society far-fetched (as some do), this is an important read. While it's unlikely the government will strip women of their names and right to property, there are dozens of organizations and politicians lobbying against women's rights bills, and women are not yet equal to men socially, politically, and economically - in 2014. This is the uncomfortable truth Atwood wants us to recognize when reading The Handmaid's Tale.
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