As part of a class assignment, I’ve read an essay titled Never Heard of Them… They Must be Canadian* by Mel Hurtig. The “never heard of them” applied to Margaret Atwood and Margaret Laurence among others (read the essay if you get the chance, it’s great). I’m sorry to admit it was true for me too: I had never heard of them before. I swore to myself, there and then, to read at least one book from both these writers someday.
When I joined Twitter several years later, I went and followed a few Canadian writers, including Margaret Atwood, whose tweets I enjoy. At last, I became too curious about her and looked for her “best” novel, which seemed to be The Handmaid’s Tale. I can’t tell whether it is her best, but one thing’s for sure: it’s great.
I had no idea what the book was about; I hadn’t read so much as the back cover. I had only a vague idea of the genre, even: something about a dystopian society, somewhere between sci-fi and history, and I’m quite amazed I got even that “close enough”.
The book is a speculative fiction, but there is a non-genre quality about it: it studies human nature in depth and leaves you to make your own opinion. Main themes include power, sexuality and feminism.
The pace is very slow, especially in the beginning. I don’t always like slowness, but here it was welcome. The events are so terrible, I was grateful that the information about “the new world” was given one drop at a time. I’m also glad that I started reading the book early this month, because I could not have binge-read it; it would have affected my mood too much.
The worst thing – or the best thing, but for your feels it’s the worst – is that this dystopian society is set in our own world and is very close to our own society. You feel like it could happen. Actually, horrors like those in the book did happen before, are happening right now in other parts of the world, and most likely will happen again somewhere else in the world. That is what makes it so hard to read.
That and the fact that the characters are deep and complex and… human. I loved how even those most probably responsible for the worst atrocities were not depicted as overly sadistic monsters. The worst acts can be committed in the belief that they are “for the greater good”.
However, the author is kind: she doesn’t dwell on the atrocities. On the contrary, she constantly diverts your attention toward some little thing, a funny expression, a flower, a dream, for you to get some relief before the next wave of pain. I didn’t cry even once, which I’m thankful for.
Bottom note: this novel is as horrifying as it is brilliantly written.
Now it hits me even harder: how have I not heard of this book or its author outside that one university class? This is the first novel by Margaret Atwood I’ve read, but it won’t be the last.
Who would I recommend this to? Everybody over 16 could enjoy this, but it might be of particular interest to women, amateur sociologists and fans of dystopian fiction.
*Hurtig, Mel.“Never Heard of Them… They Must be Canadian.” The Harbrace Reader for Canadians. Ed. Joanne Buckley. Toronto: Harcourt Canada, 2001. 279-284
(By the way, there’s an essay by Margaret Atwood in The Harbrace Reader for Canadians about utopia and several other excellent essays on various subjects, including creative writing – my absolute favourite being Madman, Architect, Carpenter, Judge: Roles and the Writing Process by Betty S. Flowers; this is one of the best books I’ve bought for a university course and I warmly recommend it. Obviously, it is of special interest to Canadians.)