Everything Handmaids wear is red: the colour of blood, which defines us.
Offred is a Handmaid in the Republic of Gilead, where women are prohibited from holding jobs, reading, and forming friendships. She serves in the household of the Commander and his wife, and under the new social order she has only one purpose: once a month, she must lie on her back and pray that the Commander makes her pregnant, because in an age of declining births, Offred and the other Handmaids are valued only if they are fertile. But Offred remembers the years before Gilead, when she was an independent woman who had a job, a family, and a name of her own. Now, her memories and her will to survive are acts of rebellion.
So this book is terrifying. I don’t think I’m saying anything new here. Everyone already knows that this book is a terrifying and incredibly on the nose dystopia, and has never been more relevant than in these current times. That is why I wasn’t going to see the tv show nor read the novel, as I have an incredibly low tolerence for sex or violence in media, and even less for sexual violence. But I recently saw the artist Renée Nault speak at a panel at TCAF, and a few pages of the graphic novel were shown on the screen behind her. When I saw those panels, the incredibly visual imagery gripped me, and I had to see more. So I bought the book. Then, that same evening, I decided to take a five minutes break in my hotel room before going out to eat, and ended up reading the entire thing in a single sitting.
I can not articulate how terrifying that book is. I knew vaguely what it was about before: a dystopia where women like Offred, handmaids, are used by the rich to create babies. I had no idea that this far-off imagined future wasn’t actually that far-off in the book itself. Offred remembers the world before, she remembers living in our modern world, and yet everyone around her stood by and let this terrible new world order take hold. That is worse than any Brave New World or 1884 where the world is already fucked up and has been since before the main character could remember. Offred saw it all happen! The world became a mess in her lifetime, and she still remembers freedom and worries about the next generation, the one that won’t. And with the actual, real world being as it is… That might happen. That *is* happening in certain places. This book is a reminder that radicalization is a thing and that people stand by while terrible stuff happens all the time.
This book also takes into account a thing that is rarely seen, let alone discussed in other distopias; What About The Rest Of The World. Usually, you have one messed up country, and no idea what the rest of the world is doing or thinks about all of that. But in The Handmaid’s tale, you see Japanese tourists visit her town… and they want to take her picture, and asks her if she is happy. *shudder.*. This book is too real. Much too real.
It’s also a story that I am incredibly glad I got to experience in graphic novel format, because I can’t really see how it would work any other way. I don’t know if this comes down to the story itself or the talent of the artist, but this story is extremely visual. Color is such a huge part of it, as well as repetition, and the character’s every gestures take on an air of practiced ritual. So much of the context and symbolism is expressed in a visual way that a graphic novel is doubtlessly the best way to experience it. After all, when you read, you experience a thing. When you watch tv, you witness it. Graphic novels offer you the dichotomy of doing both, which lends an additionnal weight to the story.
I would definitely recommend and even lend my copy to friends, but I’m not certain that I will read it again. This book just messed me up completely. In a good way, perhaps, but being disturbed and scared isn’t generally what I turn to entertainment for. I will still keep an eye out for the planned sequel to the novel, and hope that it will also be adapted in graphic novel format.
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