Why I won't be reading The Handmaid's Tale by Griselda Heppel
Amazon has just suggested my next read should be The Handmaid’s Tale. I feel like a recalcitrant schoolchild, who’s up till now avoided reading the class book and been found out. Nothing in my buying history – Walter Kempowski’s All For Nothing, Susan Cooper’s King of Shadows - can have pointed Amazon to this. No. It’s as if the super giant just knows what I’ve been up to and is holding me to account.
Or not up to. Because I haven’t watched a single episode of the TV version and have no intention of reading the widely widely widely publicised sequel, The Testaments. In other words, I am a complete Handmaid’s Tale refusenik. I can already see myself in the Bateman cartoon of The Woman in Waterstones Who Does Not Know The Handmaid’s Tale.
Except that I feel I do know it. Inside out, back to front, top to bottom, from here to eternity. Pretty hard not to when discussions of it fill every magazine, newspaper, even becoming, good grief, a main story on BBC news.
Here’s the gist: it’s set in a dystopian future America called Gilead, ruled by a tyrannical patriarchy, in which all the high status women have become infertile, with the result that the low status, fertile women are corralled into a permanent state of being raped and forced to bear babies that are then torn from them to be handed over to the high status women. The author, Margaret Atwood, is a top novelist, and the writing will be superb, and against this background heartrending individual stories will develop but I already know that I don’t want to read or watch them. A dystopian framework as brutal as this can only mean hell for the main characters, and, call me a wuss, but I’m not a great one for works of art that are full of unbearable pain. I have a growing list of plays and operas I will not go to see (Titus Andronicus, Tamburlaine I and II, Peter Grimes, Owen Wingrave, Billy Budd), while last month’s post mentioned a few books I won’t be reading again.
But… there’s something else. When The Handmaid’s Tale first came out in 1985, I had a sense of déjà vu. Fertile women being forced to bear babies in a strictly regimented society is the theme of Consider Her Ways, an intriguing novella by John Wyndham published in 1956. Admittedly, there's no male brutality here, for the insurmountable reason that in this dystopian future, men have died out and women have found a way to procreate without them; but the central character's plight in being denied any kind of life other than that of an illiterate, low status baby machine meant that the premise of The Handmaid’s Tale – for me, at least – lost some of its shock value. I’ve already read about that, I thought. Which wasn’t very intelligent of me, given that the same theme can be tackled by countless great writers and each will treat it very differently. But there it was.
So, Amazon, try me on something else. Magic and Fantasy Graphic Novels? That’ll do nicely.