The trick to creating a successful dystopian novel is to convince the reader that the wild alternate future could occur. Margaret Atwood has done it three times now with the first two books in her Oryx and Crake trilogy and the modern sci-fi classic The Handmaid's Tale. The novels are all meticulously researched, pulling from current events, culture, and science to connect to the present understanding of the world and society. In the case of The Handmaid's Tale, Atwood relies on historical research to drive the creation of the Republic of Gilead. Various governments and social structures are combined into a believable vision of a religious totalitarian regime where women have no power in their own lives. Atwood uses everything from the mythology of the Bible and actual military revolution to push a realistic worst case scenario to its uninterrupted conclusion.
The research helps make the novel believable. Research alone, however, cannot create a compelling read. The Handmaid's Tale generates suspense by structuring the story like an upside down pyramid. We meet Offred (Of-Fred) after the government of the United States has been overthrown and turned into the Republic of Gilead. Offred recalls how the rights of women were taken away one by one until everyone who didn't immediately flee the country was trapped within its borders.
The broad narrative of social revolution shifts to a slightly more focused slice of life story about a typical handmaid. We see Offred fulfill her duties in the house and around the town. She assists the wife of the commander, Serena Joy, in anything Serena wants. She helps Martha, the cook and maid, by shopping for groceries and supplies. She interacts with the other handmaids and obeys all laws of fealty and modesty to any man or unknown woman who meets her gaze.
Then The Handmaid's Tale gets a little more specific. Though Offred had a child before the takeover, she has not been able to bear a child since. Her one function in society is to give birth and that is the only thing that can guarantee her long-term safety. She is forced to undergo humiliating acts and rituals to become pregnant and knows that she will be sent away if she fails to conceive.
Then the story gets even more specific and begins to contradict everything Offred knew about the revolution and the new rule of law. Then the contradictions are contradicted and Offred's story goes off in a completely different direction.
The result is a suspenseful and accessible look into a disturbing alternate reality. By the time the epilogue happens, you begin to fear that this could be the future of America. As the blinds are drawn and the truth comes out, the ability to predict or even accept what will happen to Offred next is put into question. The suspense comes not from the preservation of knowledge nor the shocking reveals; the suspense comes from realizing the truth and refusing to accept it because it is far too horrifying to imagine.
Atwood wants you angry and shocked by the end of the book and she succeeds. The build of suspense allows you to suspend disbelief long enough to accept each new rule of the universe until seemingly nothing can faze you about the Republic of Gillead. The epilogue is a small bandage on the emotional and psychological pain but really functions as the final twist of the knife. What is revealed puts Offred's shocking ordeal into a much broader context than you could imagine. It's like you're shoved through a funnel at rapid speeds and land in the shadow of everything you encountered before the epilogue.
It's a genius approach to suspense. Margaret Atwood starts with a broad reaching concept that feels real. Then she introduces you to a character, Offred, that you instantly like and want to know more about. Then she prevents the character from giving you the information you desire because of the rules of the new world. As more rules and standards are revealed, you begin to fear for her safety and hope for a happy ending. Then the stakes shift and your own expectations of what could happen change as well. Atwood forces you to internalize a very strange story rife with social and feminist commentary by earning your trust from the first page and hinging everything else on a character you want to succeed.
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