The FMN Book Club
I hope you’ve all managed to finished the brilliant The Handmaid’s Tale because it’s time to assess, digest and move onto the next book for March….
But before I go onto to reveal what the next book is going to be, let’s talk about Margaret Atwood’s 1985 masterpiece. Yep, I’m calling it a masterpiece so I think you can tell I loved this book. The Handmaid’s Tale was the kind of book that was referenced a lot during my modern literature lectures at university but being a lazy student at the time (and barely managing to read everything that was set let alone extras!), I never bothered to go back and read it. But I’m so glad I have now. I’m already referencing it and recommending it left, right and centre and if you love alternative reality imaginings like Orwell’s 1984, this is one of the best.
The main thing that struck me reading The Handmaid’s Tale was its sheer genius and timelessness given it was written over thirty years ago and still feels relevant and relatable. The references to terrorism, women’s marches, overt sexualisation of society and increasingly misogynistic governments in the time ‘before’ felt hauntingly in line with what’s happening today in various parts of the world. I think that’s what makes Atwood such a literary power, is her ability to write utopian fiction that feels fearfully real even decades after it was written. Some of the scariest moments of the book for me were in the flashbacks to the time before the Gilead era, when Offred (or June as we think she was formerly known) suddenly lost her job and couldn’t access her money apart from via her husband. As the kind of everyday independence we in today’s Western world all take for granted, that sense of powerlessness felt all too imaginable and made me feel physically claustrophobic with her. In fact the whole book made me feel trapped just like Offred; it made me want to claw through the walls, the establishment and the awful Aunts just like untameable and slightly rogue (in a brilliant way) Moira. Restricting women and girls from learning to read felt like the cruelest, enslaved parts of the whole society to me (this book club alone should properly suggest I value the written word!), and again, something that parts of the developing world are still grappling with. If anything, this science-fiction novel made me more impassioned about current issues in the real world than before which I feel is kind of an amazing result of a dystopian piece of fiction.
Moira’s story was one of the most conflicting for me. Was her story the most tragic of the book because she was so desperate to escape and rally against her fate and in fact ended up a sex worker at Jezebel’s, or was she actually a hero for escaping in the way she did and was simply taking control over her body in the only way left in that society? I’m tempted to veer more towards the former but it felt like Atwood saw her as a real feminist hero but no matter how strong or courageous, she was simply a victim of a regime where the chance to really escape was almost at zero.
As a little side point, I also only noticed the lack of speech punctuation after I finished as I was so engrossed while reading. But just like Hemingway’s and McCarthy’s infamous disdain for speech marks (read The Road if you haven’t already), I felt like the stripped back punctuation reflected the puritanical, suppressed society and the need to to give away as little as possible in the Gildead society.
The idea of the women being shipped off to the colonies once their bodies were used up is a powerful message that needs no interpretation and is symbolic of issues we’re still grappling with today, namely that women are worth more than our outward appearance, effect on men and the potency of our reproductive organs and instincts. The subjugation of women and the whole ‘reproduction as a commodity’ element reminded me of Max Max : Fury Road (which I loved) but I thought it was all the in between moments that gave more away in terms of humanity and what Atwood was trying to say. The hypocrisy of the commander and his taste for sequinned burlesque outfits and seedy clubs is both angering but also humanising. I hated him for his part in creating the republic, and felt sorry for him all once (I know that might be massively polarising!). He clearly got no thrill out of using Offred as a breeding tool, but equally wanted her company, conversation, kisses and body when it was on less perfunctory, unfeeling terms. He wants her ‘to mean it’ and that to me really sums it up; Gilead’s laws and views of sex and relationships have stripped all the meaning and love out of human relationships, which, secondary to freedom, is essentially what so many of the characters are craving and chasing. Not just between men and women either; the handmaid’s are both desperate and fearful to find allies in each other and others, going so far as to chase the ghosts and sleep in the cupboards of their predecessors. Essentially I felt like Atwood was making it clear that indulgence, sex, love, frivolity and male and female companionship are part of human nature to a certain degree. and no matter the society, these things will seep through somehow, suppressing them only makes them seedier and us lonelier.
I loved how Atwood kept challenging us in terms of our perceptions too. Like when the handmaids are invited to do whatever they like to a supposed rapist and traitor and Offred stands back, horrified (as we are initially supposed to be) at the brutality of the attack, before Ofglen whispers to her that he is fact ‘one of them’ and they need to put him out of his misery. Serena Joy is clearly one of the most despicable characters in the book (along with mega-bitch Aunt Lydia), being a pioneer for the whole republic and a hypocrite once again when she suggest Offred sleep with Nick to get pregnant. But even Offred asks the question ‘Which of us is it worse for, her or me?’ in reference to Serena Joy’s presence for the commander and Offred’s ‘ceremony’. Atwood’s a master at making even the most deviant characters not totally devoid of sympathy when you look at them through flawed, human eyes. I thought the twist at the end perfectly summed up the paranoia and secrecy of the whole regime in such a brilliant way and I love that it ended on a high so in the end, humanity won out.
As ever, the idea with this book club is to share ideas and have a bit of a chat about the books as well as read them, so please do note down any favourite parts or points of interest in the comments so we can start replying to each other. No right or wrong views or points so don’t worry if you hated it or disagree with everything I’ve said – please say just that :)
The next book for this month is going to be Stephanie Danler’s Sweetbitter. I saw this book everywhere on Instagram, from ManRepeller to Reese Witherspoon (a known bookworm) and love trying new, first-time authors so wanted to give it a go. Really interested for you guys to read this one… Very different from The Handmaid’s Tale, way more contemporary and coming-of-age style, and any foodies or restaurant junkies out there will def find satisfaction in this one. I finished this one Jamaica but after that, I’ll be back in sync with you guys and reading in tandem!
Let me know all your thoughts, good and bad about The Handmaid’s Tale below and get your copy of Sweetbitter here. See you in a month!
Ph. by Frances Davison