This is a good book but not a great book. Most people seem to think it is a great book.
There is no doubt that the prose is perfect: sharp and smooth as gun metal, not showy, not over written. The book carries you along easily. It does not feel heavy in spite of the subject matter.
Written in the first person it is the account of a woman caught up in a religious dystopia at some unspecified time in the future. The religious right have taken over the US and converted it to a hypocritical totalitarian regime. The narrator is a handmaiden. As a punishment for not going along with the regime she is a concubine of a commander, some unimportant official, and her duty is to have sex with him to produce children. He has a wife and other concubines. Her life is completely restricted. She must dress like a nun. She is not allowed to work or to go out other than to shop. Most earthly pleasures are forbidden. As the story unfolds, cracks appear in the lifestyle assigned to her and things start to change.
The world is well drawn and rich. I would have said a few years ago that a religious totalitarian regime is improbable until the rise of ISIS suggested it is all too possible. However, I didn’t really buy this one. It seems unlikely that the Christian right could create a regime like this in the USA today. I also felt like laughing at the snippets of information about the terrorist Quakers! Flashes of the lost past world are given when the narrator had a job and a flat, a boyfriend and a baby. This is the glorious lost world but somehow it doesn’t sound that glorious. It’s just not as bad as the present.
So I enjoyed the created world and I believed in the narrator to a point though I felt she was at times a device rather than a real person. She lacked something.
I have some reservations. The book seems to read as a treatise against religion and also an essay in praise of 1970s feminism. I have nothing against 70s feminism. I do have some problem with the battering of the religious, contemplative life. I am a person who has lived that supposed wonderful independent life. I have had a good job, been out dancing, eating out, buying clothes, going on holiday, drinking and consuming. I have also screwed around. So why did it leave me so empty? Why in later life have I been drawn so much more to the spiritual life, to values beyond the material? The book doesn’t explore these themes in any depth. Religion bad. Feminism good. Not so fast Atwood.