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July 31, 2017 | by  | in Books |
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The Handmaid’s Tale — Margaret Atwood

Since the publication of doomsday novels such as Brave New World and 1984, we’ve devoured dystopian fiction with a somewhat sadistic curiosity. We gasp in horror as our characters suffer under morally corrupt regimes, subjected to the unspeakable evil of totalitarianism. Imagine! But then we close the book with a self-congratulatory smirk, because such a thing could never actually happen to us, of course.

The Handmaid’s Tale takes place in the Republic of Gilead, a futuristic Christian theocracy replacing the United States. Under this totalitarian regime, women are forbidden to hold property, control money, or vote. They are restricted to the unpaid roles of mother, wife, domestic servant, or — in the case of narrator Offred — producing children for elite, infertile families.

The Handmaid’s Tale launches straight into its narrative. Context comes later in the form of flashbacks, as Offred reveals the events that led to her becoming a Handmaid, and the US becoming an ultra-religious surveillance state. Atwood doesn’t give an exact date, but allusions like Offred’s mother’s memories of Take Back the Night marches hint at these events taking place not far from today. This relationship with the present is The Handmaid’s Tale’s genius — it presents us with a horrifying future scenario, and an unsettlingly close connection with reality. Atwood’s warning is that a society where women are commodified as breeding stock is not just the stuff of dystopian fiction, but a real possibility.

We could cast aside the events of The Handmaid’s Tale as extreme examples — some particularly morbid armchair travel for the dystopia enthusiast — but its themes are uncomfortably familiar. Do I hear echoes of victim blaming? What’s that about criminalising abortion? Americans fleeing to Canada in unprecedented numbers? It’s uncanny how well Atwood has foretold the mess we’re in — a mess that blurs the line between dystopian fiction and reality.

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