Margaret Atwood is an author who I’ve had on my to-read list for a long time, and I finally tackled The Handmaid’s Tale last month. I’m so glad that I did, because her writing is beautiful, but I also can see what took me so long, because it’s equally gut-wrenching. I’m glad I waited until a time when Little Dude was older and I wasn’t so sleep-deprived. That said, the concepts in this novel could be particularly poignant and horrifying right now, depending on your view of current politics. I’m reading and watching things from a really different perspective right now, so the book has a lot more impact than if I’d read it in college, thoroughly convinced that nothing like this could ever really happen.
Honestly, most of what I’ve read recently has felt really heavy. Except perhaps Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norell, so if you’re looking for some fun escapism, that might be your best bet.
If you’re looking for a worst-case-scenario to smack you in the face with disarmingly beautiful sentences, then The Handmaid’s Tale is a great option.
Truly, though, this book is one of the most well-crafted novels that I’ve read in a long time, and if you’re interested in studying up on really great sentences and structure, then you should read it. This is one of those cases where watching the TV adaptation just won’t be enough.
Sentences are the building blocks of novels – the next step up from words, anyway – and yet sometimes we ignore their importance. Especially when writing a first draft, it is more important that sentences march forward than appear beautiful. And some types of writing even call on the sentences to vanish into the background, to be more functional than lovely. There are times when writing should not call attention to itself.
In The Handmaid’s Tale, sentences are like songs. The way the narrator describes even the smallest things are unusual and lovely, and this builds a world that is very real, full of strangeness, beauty, and horror. The images, even those of death, have a lovely twist to them. Because of the care with which each sentence is crafted, we see very clearly who the narrator is. She doesn’t have to tell us a lot about herself, because we can see the way she thinks.
There is a grim humor in lines like, “It’s those other escapes, the ones you can open in yourself, given a cutting edge.” Shortly followed by, “The circumstances have been reduced; for those of us who still have circumstances.”
Every sentence in this novel works, and works hard. Building character, building the world, building a feeling, building the story. And building the beauty of all these things. The narrator sees humor in the world in which she lives, and this rises up from the way she uses sentences to tell her story.
I think one of the most important things about The Handmaid’s Tale is that even through the loveliness of the sentences, meaning is still clear. It’s very easy for a beautiful image to lack meaning, to muddle intent, but not here. The craft in the lines enhances the meaning and sharpens the intent. Nothing is lost for the beauty.
“We are two-legged wombs, that’s all: sacred vessels, ambulatory chalices.”
Through lines like these – thoughts that flash through the narrator’s mind – we are drawn into her world, and what is important to her becomes important to the reader.
It should be noted that some of the sentences in this book would be discouraged by some of the rules of writing style. The author breaks rules, but I believe that they are broken intentionally. Certainly, the way they are broken is effective.
The sentence, “My young mother, younger than I remember her, as young as she must have been once before I was born,” contains several repetitions of the same thought, with very subtle variations. Some would advise the author to carve this down to just one thought, just one image, on the precept that to have three makes the thought less effective. But in this case, the repetition of the thought with slight variations actually gives the thought deeper impact. The first image, “my young mother” is simple, basic, could be said by anybody. The narrator goes farther, “younger than I remember her,” connecting herself with the image. And then, finally, comes, “as young as she must have been once before I was born,” which is speculative, an imagining, connecting to her mother in a way that isn’t entirely possible. The narrator seems to slip into a time when she didn’t exist, and carries with her an understanding that she can’t fully comprehend what kind of person her mother was before having a child.
These chains of thoughts and the way they are expressed, though considered “wrong”, actually work very well in the context of a novel where all of the narrator’s old life is forbidden. She begins with a thought that is simple, could apply to anyone, a thought that is safe. And then she continues to a thought that connects to her past life, the life that’s gone now, a life she can’t even talk about with anyone around her. And then she ends with a step sideways, to a place she’s never been, a place where she could never possibly have gone.
The structure of The Handmaid’s Tale at first feels loose and disjointed. It bounces through several different time periods, the narrator’s life before everything changed, her time at the training center, and her life as Offred. Sometimes there are brief breaks in the middle of a narration, a little gap of white space in spite of the fact that the time being described hasn’t changed.
But underlying these shifts, the seemingly random bouncing, is a pattern. In the contents, the novel begins with the section “Night” then moves to “Shopping” then to “Night” again. The narrator exists in this world of constant swing between stasis and action, and all the while her old life intrudes on the present, sometimes when she seeks it, sometimes without warning.
Late in the novel, the narrator addresses the disjointed structure, the way several different times have been filled in, side by side. “I’m sorry it’s in fragments, like a body caught in crossfire or pulled apart by force.”
This back-and-forth in the narration is not only tantalizing to the reader, who is always searching for clues about what happened before the narrator’s current circumstances, it also makes sense. Because the narrator’s life has been ripped apart, without ever being put back together. The present is unreal, and makes little sense. The past intrudes, and in the context of the present, it too seems unreal. Her time at the training center connects the two, and though it should be the most nonsensical time, it is in fact the most stable. Here, at least, the world the narrator is in acknowledges the past, and how bizarre it appears alongside the present.
Later, people move together through a present that they all know is strange, and yet they can never acknowledge that. And so every image is a little disjointed and broken. Through this, the reader can see how desperately the narrator is trying to hold herself together, when everything she once was has been blasted apart.
This is a story rich with people who are complicated, diverse, and honest. Everyone the narrator encounters has wants, interior thoughts that the narrator can only guess at, but which are hinted at through her descriptions. Even the people she dislikes aren’t reduced to villainous caricatures. She has moments of sympathy, even for those who try to hurt her.
The narrator lays out even her worst weaknesses for the reader, and we can see her not as a flat hero, fighting to right the evil around her, but rather as a person, encased in difficult circumstances, trying to survive.
This book works because it lacks simplicity, because the people in it do not act like characters. They act with the broad spectrum of real people in the face of a radical situation. Some parts of them adapt to what has happened, and some do not. They risk their lives for what seem like meaningless indulgences, and yet live alongside atrocities that seem unthinkable.
Perhaps this wouldn’t be right for every story. Some tales of epic heroism require that the characters become archetypes, but even those tales benefit from a dash of complexity. In The Handmaid’s Tale, however, this complexity is everything. This story requires real people, because the reader needs to sink into the world, and feel that it is a true account. Without the horror of possibility, without that reality, the book would have much less meaning.
Reading a really well-crafted novel like The Handmaid’s Tale can be equal parts enjoyment and discouragement. I know that I read something like this, and then look to my own writing knowing that what I do isn’t nearly as good. My sentences aren’t nearly as clean, my images don’t have that kind of impact. I know my characters aren’t that complicated or detailed.
But this is exactly why it’s good to read writers who are further advanced in their skills. There is no way to learn that kind of skill, no way to even envision it, without reading it first. As usual, the first step in applying these techniques to your own writing is to read in the first place. Read as much as possible (I know, it’s not always much, but every bit counts; at least that’s what I tell myself) from as many different areas as possible. Read the things that make you laugh, read the things that make you stop and think. Read in the genre where you write, and outside it, too.
I find reading a book twice, or more, can be the best way of identifying all the components that make the piece work. Sometimes techniques aren’t apparent until you’ve fully absorbed the plot.
Then, when you read something that feels out of the reach of your own skill, remind yourself that the author probably worked long and hard to achieve what you’ve read. Books that are well-crafted might be easy to read, but they are not easy to make. When a novel is beautifully done, down to the level of the sentence, remember the hours of reading and writing that came before the writer even sat down to craft those sentences. Remember the messiness of the first draft, and all the challenge of turning that mess into something beautiful. It’s a process that every single book goes through, even if it’s not apparent from reading.
Next, practice your own writing. Sometimes, when I’m feeling discouraged about what I’ve written, I like to remind myself that no word is wasted. And that’s true. Every sentence that you write is practice, even if it will never be read by anyone else. It doesn’t matter if the sentences you scribble right now hit the cutting-room floor later, it doesn’t matter if that happens to entire chapters. Everything you write builds your skill, and advances you forward. Or at the very least, keeps you in practice.
It should be noted that Margaret Atwood does not only write novels. She’s also the author of many works of poetry, and the kind of writing and thinking required for poetry shows in The Handmaid’s Tale. Even if your poetry turns out to be complete crap, the economy of language and the type of thinking that poetry demands will force you to learn how to craft good sentences.
I imagine that Margaret Atwood’s poetry is probably not complete crap, however.
As to writing richly-fleshed characters, this requires deep observation of the world, and a really challenging level of honesty about oneself. In order to create characters who feel and behave real, a writer has to be able to look at the people around him or her and see them as rich and real. This is not always easy. It can be very tempting to villainize those who make life more difficult for us. It is, in fact, a built-in part of human nature to look at those who are remarkably different from us and see them as ‘other’. But this is one of the most essential parts of character-building, to set that aside, and acknowledge that maybe those others who annoy us aren’t all bad, and that often our own actions can create pain for others.
This is another thing that takes time and awareness, and I’ll admit that I’m not a master of it. I am, however, constantly working at it. Reading things like The Handmaid’s Tale certainly helps advance my understanding.
As always, I’ll conclude by encouraging you to keep reading and keep writing, and do both thoughtfully. Try not to get bogged down in an attempt to make every single sentence lovely, of course. You could spend your whole life staring at a blank piece of paper if you do. Keep getting sentences down, one after the other, and then revise and edit them, always getting closer to the ideal result. Every ounce of practice that you can carve out of your day is time well spent.