In a harsh dystopian America, women are stripped of all rights...
It's scary how prophetic this story is. A coup overtakes America – most members of Congress are killed in a terrorist attack and the constitution is suspended. Fundamentalism takes over, a fundamentalism that regards women as nothing. The reduction of women to non-citizens is done by the simple process of checking their bank accounts. If it has an F in your gender field, your account is frozen. And who, these days, carries cash?
So women aren't allowed to read; they aren't allowed to drive; they aren't allowed money; they must go with their bodies and hair completely covered. They are split into castes that denote their position by the colours of clothing they wear. Women don't exist without a man to act as a proxy.
Does any of this sound like a Middle Eastern society? Interesting if it does, because the fundamentalists running America are Christian. The subject here isn't religion; the subject is fundamentalism, the corruption of religion.
This dystopia has a deeper problem as well – a catastrophically falling birth rate. The most fertile women are shoved into the role of Handmaids - inseminators, for want of a better word (artificial insemination is deemed immoral). In a cold and clinical scene, we see the process through the eyes of the protagonist, physically stuck between a wife and her husband in a symbolic and utterly passionless union.
The story is told from first person, and we only have the un-named protagonist to guide us. And we know she's an unreliable narrator, frequently recounting events and then back-tracking to tell us what really happened.
We never discover her name. She is merely "Offred", literally "Of-Fred", nothing more than the property of her male owner and an inseminator for his wife. (Since this is a complete patriarchy, men cannot be sterile; only women can be so imperfect.)
There are complications when the wife, hungry for a child, sets Offred up with the chauffeur, and the husband, breaking taboos, tries to get to know her (intimately) better. For his purposes or just to make Offred's life easier, we never discover.
There are times when we feel Offred's sanity start to slip, and we slide along with her, travelling through disjointed flashbacks – sometimes in the middle of a thought. It's disquieting to feel like you know her so well and then feel her reason falling away.
Attwood has a beautiful descriptive style of writing, throwing in marvellous images that work brilliantly ("I walk along the gravel path that divides the lawn neatly, like a hair parting"). It's a world, despite its grim nature, that the narrator sees in vivid colours – the reds of the Handmaids, the black of a car, the green of a dress. However, Attwood skips on the punctuation of dialogue except when it suits her, and it can take a few reads to figure it out sometimes.
It's an engrossing story, and one well worth reading. It took me along for the ride and never dragged or lost my interest. It's a story not just for feminists or women, but for anyone who thinks and reasons.