The Reading Group reconvened in February, with Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale up for discussion. Originally published in 1985, the chilling story of Offren and her struggles against a frightening religiously inspired authoritarian regime has assumed the status of a bestselling modern classic. Handmaid’s Tale appears frequently on A level English Literature syllabuses and has been made into a critically acclaimed TV series.

Our discussion centred on the question of whether Atwood’s vision has any basis in reality, as she has claimed. Some members of the group felt that events described in the novel have a resonance with developments in the USA today, under a Trump presidency and given the influence of the religious right in the Republican Party. Others felt that that the ideas explored and developed by Atwood now appear to be rather dated, and fixed in the 1980s. There was some disagreement about the context Atwood provides for her plot, in terms of information given about the traumatic events that have led to the establishing of a religious dictatorship. One view was that it would be interesting and useful to know more about this; an alternative held that it is better left as an insidious backdrop against which the action takes place. There was no feeling in the group that any of the characters in the novel, apart from Offren, were given any real substance, but again this might be due to the structure of the novel, rather than to any stylistic shortcomings on the part of the author.

It would be fair to say that The Handmaid’s Tale was not one of the most popular of the Reading Group’s choices, and now thoughts turn to the future and the next selection, The Door, by Hungarian writer Magda Szabo.