In Which I Finally Read The Handmaid’s Tale

There are always books that one means to read, that ‘should’ be read – and for me one of them was The Handmaid’s Tale. It was published before I was even born, so it has always been popular, always been revered in my experience. This book was always on my list, always something I thought I should read, something that I might find interesting. The new TV series based on the book, coming out later this year, finally pushed me to buy a copy and actually read it.

I was surprised how short it is (my copy is about 300 pages). When I’d read about it before it had always seemed like this grand story that needed time and patience; and in some ways this was true. For a book of its length, there is an awful lot of ‘content’ in The Handmaid’s Tale. There is an awful lot left unsaid, or only implied. Our narrator, Offred, shares her story but is also careful and guarded, only telling what she chooses. We never learn her real name, for example. The ending is also somewhat ambiguous.

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Margaret Atwood apparently classes this novel as ‘speculative fiction’ rather than ‘science fiction’ and I think that’s correct. It is a dystopian novel above anything else, an alternative history of America. But like science fiction it is very detailed and ‘high concept’ with a lot of context needed to really understand what’s going on. Offred gives this to us in pieces so that at first we are lost and following her blindly, but as the book goes on we get more of the wider picture and start to form our own opinions. This was also my experience with the other Atwood novel I’ve read, Alias Grace. That novel has a multitude of perspectives and truths, and while The Handmaid’s Tale is not quite so psychological, it is multi-faceted and filled with the possibility of deceit and betrayal – amongst the characters, but also for the reader.

Atwood likes to challenge her readers, and this novel was certainly challenging to me. It was an infuriating mix of fascinating story, intriguing narrative technique, and utter misery and oppression, for both the characters and the reader. I can’t say I really enjoyed The Handmaid’s Tale, and it took me a while to read because sometimes I just didn’t want to hear about the nightmarish world that Offred inhabits. During my breaks between reading I wondered whether the book seemed like a feminist novel to me, and in some ways it does – it is about women fighting back. But it also isn’t. Women have been complicit in creating the Republic of Gilead. You wonder what the Wives, Aunts, Econowives, and Marthas really think about the way they live – they have a better deal than the Handmaids, but they are still trapped, and any power or agency they have has been given to them by the men.

I also wondered whether the book is trying to make a statement about religion, or rather when you reduce religion to its fundamentalist principles and then use those for your own gain – on a personal or national level. The Republic of Gilead is ruled by religion, but none of the characters we encounter seem very concerned with it in any form except one of authority. Do any of them really believe in God? Offred mentions ‘true believers’ but they seem few and far between.

One thing that frustrated me was the lack of detail about the rules, and how things became this way – but I suppose that is the point. Offred only tells us what she wants to, and she is clearly traumatised by the whole situation and what she has gone through before – thankfully we do learn about her past throughout the novel. I think this is also just me as a reader – some people are happy with ambiguity in a novel, and others are not. For me, it felt like there was so much more that could have been explored, and while I appreciate that Atwood chose to be ambiguous in order to leave open possibilities, and to encourage the reader to speculate, I didn’t really like this side of The Handmaid’s Tale. At the end I felt unsatisfied, and wished there was more discussion, more investigation. Everything was just so vague and uncertain. I know a lot of people love this book, but it just didn’t do it for me. Atwood is a masterful writer, especially in her carefully planned plots and her manipulative narrators, but for me The Handmaid’s Tale was too frustrating, too impenetrable, too miserable, and too unpleasant for me to enjoy. Still, it’s an inspired concept and I am curious to see what the new TV adaptation will be like – although I know for certain that it won’t be any fun.

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Originally published in 1985 by McClelland & Stewart. Reprinted many times, most recently by Vintage. I read the Vintage Future Classics 2005 edition (pictured above).

Purchase from Wordery and Foyles.

 

Girls Will Be Girls by Emer O’Toole

I have read relatively little on feminism and gender since I left university, and so to that end I ordered myself a copy of Girls Will Be Girls by Emer O’Toole after seeing positive things about it on Twitter and various other blogs. It’s a very appealing book – written by an academic but not an ‘academic book’, accessible and likeable, and with a sense of humour.

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O’Toole is indeed a very likeable writer and her chatty style engages you straight away. She uses humour and lots of her own personal stories to explain what she is talking about, and most importantly to apply feminist and gender theory to real life. I loved that she wrote about discovering the importance of feminism and the reality of gender inequality as a teenager, and how this made her rethink her own attitudes and actions. She charts the progression of her Halloween costumes as a way to demonstrate how she chose to present herself when given the chance to dress up and be different; after all this is a book about performance. The subtitle is Dressing Up, Playing Parts, and Daring to Act Differently. O’Toole’s choice to do these things, partly through her own life and also through her theatre studies, greatly affected her views on gender and its performativity. And this is the focus of the book: the performative nature of gender, something theorised by Judith Butler.

Emer O’Toole goes into a great discussion about the difference between biological gender and psychological and performative gender. Butler does not deny biological gender but argues that almost everything else about it is performative. While I agree with this to some degree, O’Toole unpacks this a bit more and explains the details of what performative gender really is. This is undoubtedly fascinating, and makes us think a bit more about why we are the way we are. She also discusses Bourdieu, Bakhtin, and a handful of other philosophers and experts on gender and sexuality.

This is all great, but there were times when I wondered if I was really the target audience for this book. It is explicitly aimed at women but I think perhaps it is aimed at a woman who is younger than me (though I’m only 28), less sure of her own opinion on gender and feminism, and who doesn’t know as much of the theory. I’m no expert in gender theory, but the material examined here is base-covering rather than exploratory, and a good deal of it was familiar.

There is also the question of how to apply the theory here. Early in the book I wondered if we were just overloaded with theory and we needed more action in our lives to try and resolve these problems with gender and sexism; but as I progressed through the book O’Toole offered more and more advice about how women can change the way they choose to be women. She discussed choice in great detail and whether we really choose to act and dress as we do or whether this is just ‘conditioned’ throughout our lives. For me, I kept wanting to point out that there is also a question of taste – I realise that liking pink is a thing that little girls are taught, but what if you just happen to like pink? So what? My only problem was my thought that you don’t have to perform gender equality blatantly – surely the most important thing is that you believe in it. In my experience the most effective way of demonstrating that gender inequality exists and is bullshit is to call people out on it in discussions, and enter into a debate. If people are not challenged then they will just carry on as they are.

But the point here for O’Toole is that she personally needed to try on new costumes to figure out her own position, and to explore those of others. I have always been taught that men and women are equal, but Emer O’Toole came from a traditional Catholic household in the Republic of Ireland – she had more to fight against. This coupled with her interest and studies in performance meant that it was very natural for her to experiment with gender performativity. This book is really about Emer O’Toole’s own relationship with her gender and her own adventures in breaking down barriers and fighting sexism, rather than a new manual for feminism.

As I said above I think the ideal reader for Girls Will Be Girls is a young woman, under 25, who perhaps is not so sure about how to deal with the gender inequality and sexism that she encounters. Perhaps she is not so sure of her own self. I would have loved to read this book when I was in my late teens, so I think I would recommend it to that age group. Nonetheless Girls Will Be Girls is a great book that deserves lots of praise and attention, and I would recommend it not only to teenage girls but to boys as well, and anyone particularly interested in experimenting with gender performativity.

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Published by Orion in 2015.

Purchase from Foyles and Wordery.

I Need Recommendations!

I do indeed. Specifically for my feminism/women reading list. I have recently compiled reading lists of the books I most want to read out of the huge list I have on GoodReads, and realised that I actually don’t have that many on feminism/women/gender. This is an area that I find fascinating and I feel like I haven’t read enough on it.

Here is the list I have so far:

  • Animal by Sara Pascoe
  • Men Explain Things to Me by Rebecca Solnit
  • Everyday Sexism by Laura Bates
  • I Call Myself a Feminist by Victoria Pepe
  • Girls Will be Girls by Emer O’Toole
  • Only Ever Yours by Louise O’Neill
  • The Madwoman in the Attic by Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar (own a copy)
  • Gilbert and Gubar’s The Madwoman in the Attic after Thirty Years by Annette R. Federico and Sandra M. Gilbert (own a copy)
  • The Second Sex by Simone du Beauvoir (own a copy)

As you can see I’ve got a mix of classics and more modern stuff. Honestly I’d rather read more modern stuff (say, since 1980) so recommendations in that bracket would be very much appreciated!

Also I must ask that no one recommend Caitlin Moran to me – I have read two of her books and didn’t really get along with them… sorry.

I look forward to hearing about some amazing books!

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(image: urbantabloid.com)