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Is there balm in Giliad?

January 24, 2012

I've always argued that that Margaret Attwood's The Handmaid's Tale should be added to the cannon of key dystopian novels. Traditionally there are three: Brave New World, 1984 and Darkness at Noon. Of which I think the Koestler is the most powerful , although the least known. All of them really require knowledge of the period in which they were written to really understand them but they retain relevance with that knowledge.

In contrast Attwood's dark tale remains ever present in its topicality. It tells the story of a right wing evangelical takeover of the US. The parallel reduction in fertility arising from chemical pollution produces a perverted need to handmaids to bear the children of the powerful. I won't spoil the story for those who have not read it, but the ritualisation of the execution scene and the hypocrisy of the night club for the elite with their Jezebels, together with the need for near permanent war were for me some of the most memorable and relevant aspects of this story. It was published in 1985 (a year earlier would have had more irony) and over a quarter of a century later it remains a prophecy with a sense of immanence.

I was prompted to write this by a link in the Guardian to a new edition of the book by the Folio Society with some truly wonderful illustrations. The film is pretty good as well. I'd make it compulsory reading in all US schools but of course Elizabeth Kantor, author of The politically Incorrect Guide to English and American Literature has condemned it, surprise surprise.

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