by Margaret Atwood
Offred is a handmaid's whose story unfolds in Atwood's famous dystopian novel. She lives in a world run by men, where women are powerless. They've lost their right to make decision, to learn how to read and even to have a job. The rulers claim they have "freed" the women from the painful tasks of having to find a husband or take care of themselves. Any women who are fertile are turned into handmaids and assigned to a home where they are forced to bear children for a married couple.
When I began the book I assumed this was a dystopian set decades in the future, where the women had no memory of life as we know it. I quickly learned that Offred used to have a job, money of her own, a husband and child, etc. The decline into her current policed state was swift and terrifying. That realization made the book even more chilling because it's all too easy to imagine it happening today.
I loved Atwood's bleak prose. Offred's resignation and despair were palpable. The tense relationships between the characters were thrilling. Offred was forced to walk a tight rope of suspicion in every conversation, never knowing who she could trust.
In one scene Offred is using butter she hid and saved from a meal as lotion on her skin. It's been so long since she's been anything but the potential carrier of a child that the concept of being loved is almost obsolete to her now. She says...
"As long as we do this, butter our skin to keep it soft, we can believe that we will some day get out, that we will be touched again, in love or desire."
It was the small acts of rebellion like this, breed from a spark of hope, that made Offred such a heartbreaking character. After Offred loses her ability to support herself she struggles in her relationship with her husband. That shift of dependence in their relationship changed everything...
"We are not each other's, anymore. Instead, I am his."
BOTTOM LINE: I can't recommend this book highly enough. Though it's more than 30 years old, it's more relevant than ever. Atwood's writing reveals the story bit by bit, allowing the horror of the changed society to creep up slowly.I read it for the first time in 2010 and rereading it this year gave the story even more depth.