|First editions of two Margaret Atwood books.|
"I sit in the chair and think about the word chair. It can also mean the leader of a meeting. It can also mean a mode of execution. It is the first syllable in charity. It is the French word for flesh. None of these facts has any connection with the others." (The Handmaid's Tale, p. 110)Words clearly fascinate Margaret Atwood! She began her writing career as a poet, and went on to write her many very successful novels. A few pages into the newest one: The Testaments, I realized that I didn’t remember enough of The Handmaid’s Tale to read the sequel, so yesterday with great enjoyment and admiration, I reread the earlier book. It's a masterpiece.
I quoted the above passage, this brief reverie on a word, as an example of Atwood's special powers of looking at words. The narrator of the book refers to it as one of her "litanies." I can't help feeling that in The Handmaid's Tale, while I'm obviously reading a kind of cautionary tale where women have become a totally downtrodden class in a highly abusive and authoritarian society, I'm also reading a kind of poem to everyday feelings, objects, and experiences. Atwood always does that to me. In fact, I think that the amazing dystopian society that Atwood invented captivates readers so much that they don't necessarily dwell on the amazingly imaginative language of the narrative.
Food, aromas, pain, hunger, desire, outrage, fear, resentment, humiliation, hope and despair -- so many internal sensations and emotions come out in the experience of the narrator, whose name isn't really her name: she's called Offred, meaning she's the "handmaid" of a man named Fred. She's his sexual slave whose only purpose is to bear a child for Fred and his wife Serena Joy, who is too old for childbearing. Dystopian through and through! But such a thoroughly imagined dystopia!
I don't want to go on and on about the book, I want to start reading the sequel. But here's another passage that captured my admiration:
"The room smells of lemon oil, heavy cloth, fading daffodils, the leftover smells of cooking that have made their way from the kitchen or the dining room, and of Serena Joy's perfume: Lily of the Valley. Perfume is a luxury, she must have some private source. I breathe it in, thinking I should appreciate it. It's the scent of pre-pubescent girls, of the gifts young children used to give their mothers, for Mother's Day: the smell of white cotton socks and white cotton petticoats, of dusting powder, of the innocence of female flesh not yet given over to hairiness and blood. It makes me feel slightly ill, as if I'm in a closed car on a hot muggy day with an older woman wearing too much face powder. This is what the sitting room is like, despite its elegance." (p. 80)
Margaret Atwood has been one of my favorite authors since I read The Edible Woman, her first novel, which was then pretty obscure. It was published in 1969, and I read it soon after that, along with a few slim poetry collections. I have bought and read all but one of her subsequent novels when they were published, and I have liked them (with one or two exceptions). Somehow I have never seen the movie or the TV series based on The Handmaid's Tale, so I enjoyed rereading it very much without having to think about how it was interpreted and dramatized by others. Now I'm ready to read The Testaments!
This review © 2019 by mae sander for maefood dot blogspot dot com