Jean McClellan’s life has become one of few words. It wasn’t always this way. She was once a brilliant neurolinguist, running a groundbreaking team of researchers. But now, every time she speaks, the metal counter on her wrist ticks down from the daily allowance of 100 to the grim nullity of 0. To speak after the counter reaches 0 is to risk a series of rapidly intensifying electric shocks. All women in the US have been issued with these counters, from infants to the elderly, round about the same time that they were removed wholesale from the workforce and sent back to their ‘proper’ place in the home. Now Jean lives in a daze of depression, watching her four children adjust to a world in which women are penalised, and longing for her lacklustre husband Patrick to make a stand against these wretched innovations. But, with the weak President following the lead of the charismatic, dangerous conservative Reverend Carl Corbin, and the unreformed masses baying for the blood of those who step out of line, what’s the chance of change? Sobering and scary, this is The Handmaid’s Tale for our time, which should be read both by women and men: an all-too-plausible next step to damnation.
In a neatly ironic touch, Jean’s professional speciality is Wernicke’s encephalopathy, a brain disorder in which lesions to the nervous system cause a loss of intelligent language. This can be caused by a stroke or traumatic injury to the brain. Words remain, but are jumbled out of any meaning. Likewise, the patient can no longer understand speech. Jean and her team have been trying to find a way to reverse Wernicke’s and, at the time that women were forcibly removed from the workforce, they had just reached an important milestone in their research. Now, a year on, the world has changed completely. But then news comes that the President’s brother has suffered a dreadful skiing accident, causing brain damage in precisely the part of the brain that affects Wernicke’s. Woman or not, Jean is on the government’s list to come in and try to find a cure as quickly as possible. On the bright side, this means she will be reunited with her brilliant colleagues; but, as they get to work on their task, she begins to realise that certain things don’t add up. Could the government have another reason for wanting to understand how to deal with Wernicke’s? What is she actually helping to do?
Professional frustration is one thing, but Jean’s personal life has been stultifying as well. Patrick, as security adviser to the White House, is in exactly the right place to try to reduce the restrictions against women; but he seems cowed by the new order, and doesn’t dare speak up. As cameras are installed around their home; as all her books and pens and paper are taken away (for what use does a woman have for written words?); as sign language of any kind is forbidden (for that still counts as communication); as she watches her eldest son Steven being warped by the Pure movement of Reverend Corbin; as she watches her little girl Sonia growing up learning that to be silent is to be good; as all of this unfolds, Jean seethes in mute fury. What love she ever had for Patrick begins to fade, as their partnership in the good old days becomes transformed into just another domestic tyranny. And so her heart and mind turn ever more frequently towards her former colleague Lorenzo, with whom she enjoyed a passionate affair in those last frenetic days before she lost everything.
The worst thing is that Jean can’t absolve herself of responsibility for the world around her. She remembers her university days with her activist friend Jackie – her tedious friend, always protesting and marching and making a nuisance of herself, while Jean preferred to keep quiet and study, rolling her eyes with Patrick at the enthusiasms of the left wing. But now she understands that her silence makes her complicit in the new world. All it takes for evil to succeed is for good men and women to do nothing. If we do nothing, we have no right to complain. And by God, that’s an important reminder.
Yes, but it’s only a novel, isn’t it? Is it? I’m fortunate enough to live and work in a place where I’m taken just as seriously as a woman as I would be if I were a man; but this isn’t representative of the world at large or even of my own country. I still overhear men out for a drink ‘bantering’ about how their wives talk too much. Women are easily termed ‘nags’ or ‘pushy’ for having the temerity to speak up either at home or in the workplace (not mine, thank God!). I rarely hear the latter adjective applied to a man; never the former. In 2011, David Cameron as prime minister told MP Angela Eagle to ‘calm down dear’ when she challenged him during Prime Minister’s Question Time. In February 2017 in the US Senate, Elizabeth Warren was cut off during her speech against the appointment of Jeff Sessions as Attorney General. Mitch McConnell justified her silencing in now-famous words: ‘She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted’. Would he have spoken the same way about a male colleague? Probably not. Women speaking up are taken as a nuisance; an interruption; anomalies to be squashed.
And women are increasingly taken to task for having opinions in other realms. One only has to look at the hatred, bile and rape threats that greet virtually any high-profile woman’s public comments. This now applies to almost every female MP in the UK and to celebrated academics like Mary Beard. What is happening to our world? The most awful thing is that I don’t think the world itself has changed. People are just using the anonymity of the internet to show us that the values of equality and acceptance we thought characterised our modern age are actually a smokescreen for something far more primal and violent. And the new popularity of ‘red pill’ online communities, which promote the so-called ‘natural order’ of women being meek, obedient homemakers, completely subservient to their men, echoes this disturbing feeling.
What I must say is that, while the concept is chilling, the book works less well as a novel. My rating is primarily based on that unnerving world-building. I suppose the love triangle element had to be there, but I thought the way it was all tied up in the end was a little too neat and convenient, saving Jean from any risk of being ‘the bad guy’. It’s never explained why and how Jackie pops up again: there’s no reason for her to be there. The characterisation isn’t always great; and there are some bluffs and double-bluffs that don’t always quite work; but not enough to blunt the story’s impact. Dalcher has taken the worrying trends visible in modern politics and society and extended them to their extremes: a clarion call to be aware of what’s happening around us and not to shrug things off. This is The Handmaid’s Tale for our generation, but what’s really alarming is that it sounds so very plausible in the current climate. Powerfully disturbing.