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I live in Bedford, England. Having retired from teaching; I am now a research student at the University of Bedfordshire researching into Threshold Concepts in the context of A-level Physics. I love reading! I enjoy in particular fiction (mostly great and classic fiction although I also enjoy whodunnits), biography, history and smart thinking. I have also recently become a keen playgoer to London Fringe Theatre. I enjoy mostly classics and I read the playscripts and add those to the blog. I am a member of Bedford Writers' Circle. See their website here: http://bedford-writers.co.uk/ Follow me on twitter: @daja57

Sunday, 12 June 2016

"The Handmaid's Tale" by Margaret Atwood

Set in a near future after Christian fundamentalists have taken over a large part of the US and imposed a totalitarian patriarchal hierocracy, Offred (her name means Of Fred) is a 'handmaid', the scarlet and white clothed mistress of one of the powerful commanders. Her job is to provide lustless sex so that the commander can breed children because the birth rate has crashed, many women (never men according to the dogma of the patriarchy) are infertile and many children who are born are deformed and destroyed.

Atwood writes in a simple but lyrical style, delicately dropping breadcrumbs of information, never telling us more than we need for a moment, allowing us slowly to explore the parameters of the strange new world. The back story is always a problem in science fiction; the events that shape the dystopia must (?) be described but this can mean the narrative interrupts; Atwood solves this by doling out the information in tiny nibbles, waiting until over half way through before giving a larger chunk.

Her prose is beautiful, blemished only by those infantile neologisms which American commercial practice imposes on the world, thus there are BirthMobiles and Soul Scrolls and Compubanks and Pornomarts and Feels on Wheels vans and Bun-Dle Buggies.

The Commander's wife, Serena Joy, is an old lady, barren, trapped in a marriage, having achieved what she worked for but possibly not enjoying it now that it has arrived: "her face is sinking in upon itself, and I think of those towns built on underground rivers, where houses and whole streets disappear overnight."

What is beautiful about her writing is the way she can convey peace and despair and hopelessness in sentences of such pure simplicity. It is the way she uses words and very short sentences to comunicate. Simple. Stark. Elegant. Much better than this rubbish that praises her.

Some other gems:

  • "A man is just a woman's strategy for making other women"; a point reinforced by mitochondrial DNA.
  • "Ignoring isn't the same as ignorance, you have to work at it."
  • "at that time men and women tried each other on causally, like suits, rejecting whatever did not fit"
  • "July, its breathless days and sauna nights, hard to sleep"
  • "Better never means better for everyone ... It always means worse, for some."
  • "I am a blank here, between parentheses."


A joy to read.

June 2016; 324 pages if you include the 'Historical Notes' which add nothing to a gem of a story and which I would recommend you not to read.

I am not a usual reader of science fiction but technically this classifies, and as a dystopian vision. Other dystopian books I would recommend in this blog include:

  • Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel although the big unanswered question is why the survivors of the plague would be so keen to preserve Beethoven and Shakespeare and so cavalier about preserving engineering and pysics; perhaps the virus attacked scientists preferentially
  • The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins: book one is great, book two OK but book three is a real let down; don't bother
  • The Man in the High Castle by Philip K Dick is said to be great by everyone but I was underwhelmed
  • and of course Oryx and Crake, another brilliant novel from Atwood, post-apocalyptic rather than dystopian perhaps.
Also read Atwood's Hag-Seed, a great retelling of the Tempest with, of course, a play within a play.


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