The Handmaid's Tale
by Margaret Atwood
This book is a vision of what life may become in a post-apocalyptic world. It is set in the Republic of Gilead (formerly the US state of Massachusetts), a dictatorship founded on spurious fundamentalist religious principles. A fatal attack on the President and Congress by (supposedly) fanatical Islamic terrorists starts the whole shebang. Portentous or what, when one considers this was written in 1985?
Our heroine is Offred, the eponymous handmaid. In the new regime, created after the attack, women are categorised according to their ability to bear children and Offred is handmaid to one of the leaders, a commander called Fred (hence Offred - of Fred). Many of the children of Gilead are born dead or deformed, we assume by chemical or nuclear weapons, so any woman able to produce healthy offspring is a national asset - property of the state. Other women whether because of age, infertility or reactionary tendencies are either servants or sent to 'the colonies', contaminated areas, from which they never return. Some barren women may survive as high-ranking wives to the regime leaders.
While relating her story Offred reminisces about her past life which included a lover, a daughter, a mother, the fates of whom she knows nothing, and comes to terms with the fact that she will never know. Hers is a desperately lonely, friendless existence until the commander takes her into his confidence and introduces her to an alternative world. Through this she becomes aware of an active resistance movement and a way to beat the system.
This was my first reading of this book, which was published in 1985, and it brought back many memories of those times. We marched through London then in protest against the build up of the world's nuclear arsenals. Women camped outside Greenham common airbase where American Cruise missiles were deployed and protesters based themselves at Faslane, home of the American Polaris submarine (some are still there).
Margaret Atwood's book makes for sobering reading. It is still relevant today and has taken on a new meaning for a new generation.