Wednesday, 5 January 2011

The Handmaid's Tale

Margaret Atwood

I once read an essay about writing fantasy. That's probably not that unusual, except I don't read or write fantasy. I don't look at it in bookshops, wish it merry Christmas, or sit next to it on the train. But this essay was written by Pratchett, and I do read Pratchett. (I don't sit next to him on the train either, but only out of deference.)

And Pratchett said something along the lines of this: good writing shows you the familiar from an unfamiliar angle. It shows you the ordinary in an extraordinary light. (At least, I think he said that. If my memory made that up, then that's awesome too.)

I remembered this when reading The Handmaid's Tale. What's so fascinating about the world of Gilead is not what is different, but what has stayed the same. There are still shops and boredom and gossip. The one thing that has completely not changed, of course, is people.

But this isn't a normal-people-story with a shiny new background. You probably weren't thinking that, and I should apologize for presuming it; but I think I would have thought that, a while ago. It's only this year, readings books like this, The Road, and The Yiddish Policemen's Union, that I've realised how supremely relevant, how utterly foreground, the world of a book can reign. And also, how thoroughly and expertly it has to be handled.

I flinch to think of my first couple of novel-attempts, both set in deeply alternative worlds, both unexplored and incompetently presented. I wasn't taking that side of things seriously. The world isn't just wallpaper, it's context. Context is king, by definition, by constitution, and by creed, in the medium of text.

My favourite things about The Handmaid's Tale are the brief glimpses backwards in time. Offred looks over her shoulder at the world she has left behind -- our world -- and my, how it looks strange.


  1. Great review - and nice timing, too. Your (paraphrased from Pratchett) idea of what makes good fantasy or sci fi or dystopian fiction (or any sort of fiction, I suppose) is interesting - that it just gives you another avenue to look at the world, but in a different way than you're used to. Or something. You said it more eloquently. Cheers!

  2. Great post. I loved this book, though couldn't necessarily articulate why. You're absolutely right that context is king, though - and those brief glimpses backwards into what is our world just give us that much more context.

  3. This post is just what I've been aiming for lately: a succinct discussion of a single, interesting point. I've been trying to avoid the plot summary-what I liked-what I didn't like format for months now.

    And you make a good point here as well. It's what is familiar in dystopian fiction that let's us begin to care about what is strange.

  4. Dystopia is what would happen if things went wrong, isn't it. Atwood is great at it; it's scary!