The Handmaid’s Tale (1985)

(I’m still catching up with SF classics I missed first time round.)

Inspired by the excellent TV series, I finally got round to reading Margaret Atwood’s classic novel of religious dystopia. I’m sure everyone knows the set-up by now – a near-future New England, in which the US government has been overthrown by an extreme, Christian theocracy. The story focuses on Ofred, a handmaid, whose role is to serve the family of a powerful member of the elite, and to try to bear a child for him, through regular ‘ceremonies’, in which she is forced to have sex with him (toe-curlingly described, in a way that makes you feel sorry for everyone involved).

The television version was so tense that after each episode, I found myself releasing a long breath and wondering how I could face the next one.

If anything, the book is even more tense. Ofred’s thoughts flit from present to past erratically in a thoroughly convincing evocation of the mind of someone utterly terrified that the slightest mis-step, or word out of place, could be fatal. I don’t know how convincing the future world might have seemed in 1986, but in 2017 it is eerily on the money.

How did I miss this back in the 1980s? Atwood is a writer with a lot of mainstream credibility, by no means confined to a genre. But it was nominated for a Nebula and won the Arthur C Clarke award, so is clearly science fiction. I think – to my shame – that at that young age I probably assumed the book was not for me. I’m embarrassed to admit that I probably saw it as a ‘women’s book’, and passed by.

My loss, which I’m glad I’ve now put right. A big thumbs-up and eight out of ten.