Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Ladies in Red: Rereading The Handmaid's Tale

It is 2002 and I am in my last year at school. I have dragged myself up several flights of stairs to the English classroom, the one right at the top of the building that becomes hot and stuffy in the summer, and I have thrown down my heavy rucksack, which is disfigured by Tipp-Ex eyes and yin yangs. The teacher is telling us that one of our A-level texts is to be The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood. I have never heard of it, or of her, and I’m not particularly bothered: the books we read at school are never as exciting as the ones I read at home, about quests and dragons and magic.

In that classroom, we begin to read aloud great chunks of The Handmaid’s Tale, our teacher picking on whoever is paying the least attention for this happy task. She tells us to listen to what Atwood is doing with language. I haven’t thought much about the way in which novels are written before, only about the stories themselves, and I shiver when I realise that the name of the book’s rebel movement ‘Mayday’ derives (just like the emergency distress call) from the French M’aidez: ‘help me’.

Over the days, the weeks, I become used to the way Atwood jumps through time, or drip-feeds information, or causes me to question the reliability of her narrator. She is playing with me, I realise - and as a result I am being drawn further into the tale of Offred, the scarlet-clad titular character, and her struggle in the totalitarian, repressed state of Gilead. I am not even giggling when we encounter swearing or passages about sex. I’m too engrossed in the world, too eager to discover what happens next. I cannot believe it’s a schoolbook, this bold and brilliant novel. I can’t believe it’s a book at all. I’ve never read anything like it in my seventeen years, and it’s changing how I think about reading, about writing - and about telling stories.

*

Recently, I read The Handmaid’s Tale for the second time. I don’t usually return to books, but I nominated this one for The Geneva International Book Club, so I picked it up again - with some trepidation. Dystopian literature is so very fashionable right now, most notably in Young Adult fiction (think The Hunger Games, Divergent, How I Live Now etc.), but The Handmaid’s Tale was written almost thirty years ago – what if it had gone stale? Or what if it simply wasn’t as good as I remembered?

In Atwood I trust, I told myself, and on a trip to my parents’ house dug out my old book from school. It has a plastic cover that someone – the librarian, most probably – wrapped around the outside; it has St. Margaret’s School, Exeter stamped onto the title page; it has pencil notes in the margins, made by me, long ago. Now I write this, I wonder whether I was supposed to have kept it. I’m glad I did.

Last month, my secondary school closed its doors for good. A small, old-fashioned girls’ school, it sometimes seemed as though it belonged in a time gone by; that was no small part of its charm and - I suspect - its undoing. When I heard of its fate, I was sad, certainly, but I quickly pushed the news aside. I suppose that it all feels very far away from me here in Geneva, both in terms of physical distance and the fact that exactly a decade has now passed since I left. But then I opened up my old copy of The Handmaid’s Tale, and not only was I back in that story, I was back in that school as well.

We were (young) ladies in red too, we St. Margaret’s girls. ‘Cherry red,’ it was called; the colour of our jumpers, the stripes on our ties, the ribbon on our blazers. But the hue of our uniforms is where the similarities between we and the handmaids of Atwood’s novel end. They live in a stilted, subjugated society, whereas our red world was full of words and ideas and learning.

It was around the age I first read The Handmaid’s Tale, in the atmosphere of that school, that I started to consider what steps I should take, in order to make something out of all the stories that kept popping into my head. In fact, I remember telling anyone who’d listen, with all the swagger that comes with having absolutely no clue what the Big Wide World has in store, that I wanted to be a writer. And looking back, after a decade on this path, I don’t remember any of my teachers or friends telling me that it would be hard, that my bank statements would be laughable, that the whole thing was going to be - at times - frustrating and disheartening. What would have been the point? I was going to do it anyway. Funnily enough, for all its dated rules and uniform codes, St. Margaret’s was thoroughly modern in the way it filled us with ambition, and then let us speed off in any direction we chose.

It’s nostalgia I’m feeling, I know this. Rereading Atwood’s novel has taken me back to a happy, formative time and my brain has conveniently edited out all the bleak bits. But I think, given the recent closure of St. Margaret’s, I’m experiencing a little more than just wistful reflection on days’ past. That time is gone for me – that’s how growing up works – but the fact that that school, that environment, that place of possibilities has now gone too – that’s the part that stings.

I should say at this juncture that the book is still fantastic - of course it is. At the book club, it provoked some great discussion, not only on the story itself, but on wider issues that need and demand great discussion: women, religion, reproductive rights, to name but a few. It has also been a boon to my writing, as reading the masters always is, for it has forced me to try and raise my writing game a thousandfold. Most of all, it’s made me think of myself, at seventeen. Fiercely ambitious, hopelessly naïve, what would she say to me now, I wonder, that girl whose notes are pencilled in this old book? Finish your novel, I expect (it’s what I say to myself now).

It is unsurprising perhaps, with all of this rattling around in my head, that in my reread of The Handmaid’s Tale, this passage stood out in particular:

We line up to get processed through the checkpoint, standing in our twos and twos and twos, like a private girls’ school that went for a walk and stayed out too long. Years and years too long, so that everything has become overgrown, legs, bodies, dresses all together. As if enchanted. A fairy tale, I’d like to believe.

Sometimes, when Real Life gets confusing or tough, I wonder whether maybe, like the Pevensie children, I’ll come tumbling out of the wardrobe, and find I’m still a young girl in a cherry red jumper, and that no time has passed at all. Only, that’s the wrong way round: St. Margaret’s is the fairy tale now, the lost place of our childhoods. We’re all grown up and can’t get back – and, sadly, neither can the children who were halfway through their studies this year, nor the teachers and other staff who dedicated so much of themselves to that school.

I hope it’s not forgotten. I think, after my strong reaction to rereading The Handmaid’s Tale, that’s the reason I started to write this: I want to remember. Memories, I believe, are important real stories that we have to recognise, learn from, laugh at, and - above all else - hold onto. In that way, I hope revisiting St. Margaret’s in the future will be as easy as revisiting a favourite novel: I hope I will return to it, unexpectedly, inevitably, over and over; that place and that time that made up so many chapters of the beginning of my story.

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