Book Review – The Handmaid’s Tale

The Handmaid’s Tale
Hardcover: 318 pages
Author: Margaret Atwood
Illustrations by: Anna and Elena Balbusso
Published by The Folio Society 2012 – Second printing 2017
RRP £38.95

An Adult Fictional Book – Classic Dystopian Themed Novel/Speculative Fiction

The Handmaid’s Tale has been in print for over 30 years so this review is more an evaluation of the second printing 2017 by The Folio Society, London, which includes some fabulous illustrations and is introduced by the author.

As with most dystopian themed classics, this too, is chillingly prophetic. In this strange world, the narrator, Offred is a Handmaid in service to the Republic of Gilead (a country that stands in the place of what was the USA) in a future near. Gilead is built around a single goal: the control of reproduction. Political subjugation creates a society in which women are treated as subhuman.

The Wives, Handmaids (and the Marthas) serve their husbands, the military Commanders and their households in one way or another. The state tackles the problem of the decrease in birth rates by assuming the control of women’s bodies. For The Handmaids specifically freedom is restricted. They move in pairs. They dress in red habits and white veiled hats. There are so many rules. It is dangerous to speak because some words are forbidden and cannot be uttered. On the other hand, it is dangerous not to speak as the silence may give away one’s true feelings. For women in general they cannot vote, read, work or hold property.

Offred’s role is to bear child(ren) for her Commander, whose wife (Serena Joy) is unable to conceive.

The colonies are dreadful places and the handmaids live in fear for their lives because if they do not fall pregnant within two years they can end up there and die!

The reader gets to know of Offred’s inner struggles because of the first-person narrative. So, the reader learns of Offred’s whole life…her life before this, about her relationship with divorcee Luke, and about the child they parented. Offred’s real name is not revealed. Her anonymity throughout is significant to a key story plot toward the end.

The final section of The Handmaid’s Tale includes Historical Notes, which explores many topics and themes of the book as well as the open ending.


First published in Canada in 1985, and if you’ve never came across this as a form of curriculum study for the topic of totalitarian theocracy, or it has been a cautionary tale that has escaped your radar so far, I whole heartedly recommend it.

Why? Well the first thing that struck me was seeing this as a literary modern classic, written in a non-literary style. Having never been out of print the writing shouts quality from the start. It is not wordy, sentences are deliberately clipped. Repetition is widely used for and an easy flow, for instance the second paragraph of Chapter Two the word ‘window’ appears five times in five lines. This wouldn’t usually work in prose, but in Atwood’s it does.

Secondly, Atwood has invented a world. I always admire that in any piece, in any kind of artistic format. There are Aunts, but not in the true sense of the meaning. Religion and prayer is a theme but the Guardians and the Angels are not in the context one might expect. People descriptions include: lesser men, unbabies; unwomen; gender traitor.

The book is visually presented in a way that is aesthetically pleasing and paper smooth. Illustrated by Anna and Elena Balbusso. Therefore, as well as the Frontispiece  there are six colour illustrations printed on a paper material with a fabric feel to the touch.

There are techniques in the artwork that also look textured. I take an educated guess at a mixed medium of printing inks, acrylic paints, pastels and artist pen with digital enhancement. With shades from the Red colour palette, and white, black and gold accentuated in clothing. While others have contrasting objects of bold greens and strong blues included. Stunningly unusual!

Book review by Reviewer and Critic, Debra Hall


2 thoughts on “Book Review – The Handmaid’s Tale

  1. I truly enjoyed the Handmaid’s Tale and any book that comes with accompanying images that are as stunning as these definitely catches my fancy. I really want the Folio version of Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, but that’s quite a bit of cash for me to drop on a book all at once. Great post!


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