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Margaret Atwood.
Toronto, ON: McClelland and Stewart, 1985.
394pp., cloth, $22.95.
ISBN 0-7710-0813-9. CIP.

Subject Headings:
Man-woman relationships-Fiction.

Grades 12 and up / Ages 17 and up

Reviewed by Ruth Cosstick.

Volume 14 Number 1
1986 January

Margaret Atwood, one of Canada's foremost authors, has joined an illustrious coterie of writers who have envisioned the future. Rather than the quasi-scientific books of H.C. Wells or Jules Verne, Atwood has delineated a social and sexual revolution, or perhaps more accurately, an anti-social. anti-sexual revolution. Taking the text of her sermon directly fiom Genesis 30:1-3. where Rachel demands a child of Jacob through her handmaid, Atwood leaps ahead to a period when the environment has been destroyed because of an entirely credible combination of all-too-familiar circumstances. The birth rate has fallen alarmingly and radical measures must be taken to rectify the situation.

In the Republic of Gilead that appears to have replaced Massachusetts, the unnamed narrator-handmaid gives an account of her life as slave in the household of a Commander. Her only function is to produce a child for his apparently barren wife. That the fault may lie with the male species is, in this society, not countenanced. The rigid training given by the Aunts provides a bluntly horrifying picture of the attempt to erase memories of the "time before" and to inculcate the importance of laying the foundation for future generations to benefit from the enforced services of the handmaids. This self-styled 'refugee from the past" endures a nightmare existence for the sake of a husband and child who may still be alive somewhere.

It is a tribute to the imaginative author of such an extraordinary plot that the book went into a second printing a week ahead of its publication date. The clever word play, the needle-sharp satire, and the sudden flashes of humour that her public have come to expect of an Atwood novel, combine to develop with horrifying acuity the story of the insidious mind and military takeover of a Gilead in which there is no balm. The historical notes on The Handmaid's Tale form an intriguing epilogue to what has become an absorbing mystery. Tad Aronowicz's jaggedly surrealistic cover design is most appropriate.

This is an important book containing direct warning against the misuse of the environmental and human resources at the disposal of today's culture. The clinically sexual descriptions make the book unsuitable for younger readers, but for a society that has superseded Orwe 1984, the Handmaid's urgent message should have an impact.

Ruth Cosstick, Ottawa, ON.
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