Books I Adore #1: The Handmaid’s Tale

You guys. This book.

I re-read this for approximately the 17th time the other day and it struck me, once again, how much I love Margaret Atwood. She is amazing and you should all worship her. (You think I’m kidding, but I’m not.)

The world has gone crazy and the US has been taken over by religious zealots who restrict women’s access to reading, writing, and true community. These are women without agency, controlled by men, and given rank based on past choices and fertility. The world Atwood creates is terrifying because she shows the tiny steps taken to get to this horrifying world, the slow slide and sudden stop of a culture headed somewhere truly dangerous.

Man, no wonder I turned into a raging feminist. I read this book for the first time when I was around 14 and it nestled its way into my heart, reminding me that I did not ever want to be Offred or Serena Joy or Moira, forcing me to speak up for fear of having my voice taken away from me.

But reading it this time was something special. I am working on my Master’s in Creative Writing (I’ll admit here that I don’t actually know if I’m supposed to capitalize any/all of that, so I just do it because it looks important) and the thing I hear consistently from one of my tutors is that I need to be more descriptive. I need to show the world, to immerse readers in it and help them connect to my characters. It makes sense, when you think about it, but we are a generation of people raised shouting into the void of the Internet and words have been my salvation since childhood. Heck, I don’t even really think in images or remember them particularly strongly. When I meet guys I don’t think about their eyes or remember their face – I remember the impression they gave me, the things they said, whether they made me laugh. I pay attention to general attractiveness, sure, but unless it gets brought up I won’t even notice the colour of their eyes.

So to be a descriptive writer is, to me, a kind of magic. How do writers use words to create images that stick with me when I can’t even really remember how things look in real life? I don’t have to look any farther than Atwood’s prose to see how this can be done well. Re-reading it this time, I was struck by the sheer amount of physical detail. I have a clear sense of the house Offred lives in, the town she wanders around, the oppressiveness of the Rachel and Leah Center. A new character is introduced early on in the book with the following description: She walks demurely, head down, red-gloved hands clasped in front, with short little steps like a trained pig’s on its hind legs. I mean, look at that. Look at it! Physical description that informs the reader about both the woman (“She walks demurely” and “short little steps…”) and the world they live in (“red-gloved hands”), that combine to make a judgement on the way women must live (“like a trained pig’s…”).

Even just straight physical description gives readers an idea of the character’s mental state and the world around them. The tulips along the border are redder than ever, opening, no longer winecups but chalices; thrusting themselves up, to what end? They are, after all, empty. When they are old they turn themselves inside out, then explode slowly, the petals thrown out like shards. The flowers are not just flowers. This comes right after we see women mourning a child lost in the womb and just before Offred’s trip to the doctor’s office, and it shows us what is at stake. The women are blooming, especially the red women, forced up into the world, but they are empty. Birth rates have dropped dangerously low and Offred exists in this community for one reason: to breed. What, then, will happen if she cannot? This one passage about flowers in the garden gives readers an idea what Offred thinks will happen, what she worries about. It is not explicitly stated, this relationship between flower and woman, and yet it is woven through the text. The images she uses highlights important emotional moments and, in this way, plot and description and character development all merge into one glorious being.

If reading makes you a better writer, writing makes you a better reader, too. So I’m sorry, Ms. Atwood, that I have never appreciated your book the way I needed to. That I didn’t see the skill. I saw only the surface, a beautiful book with an incredible story, an unsettling look at the world we could become. I’m sorry that even now I don’t appreciate it the way I will in ten more years, or ten years after that. But I promise to keep reading, because if I know anything in this world, it is that truly great books stay in your heart and your head for years and change as you change. I can’t wait to see what Offred and Gilead are like the next time I encounter them.

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