Set in a madhouse, this modern passion play portrays Egypt's harsh patriarchal society and its devastating repression of women. Saadawi (Woman at Point Zero, not reviewed, etc.), a well- known Egyptian feminist and dissident who currently teaches at Duke, makes the injustices that take place in her novel's asylum reflect on all of Egypt. Ganat, a proud and independent young woman unwilling to be subservient, ends up in the asylum. Narguiss, her childhood friend, is the head nurse. The story unfolds through dreamlike flashbacks that begrudgingly reveal a narrative while painting a bleak picture of women's position in Egypt. In one surrealistic scene, Ganat is tried by a judge who shares the characteristics of the oppressive men in her life: the director of the asylum, the King, her grandfather. She is accused of being born with her eyes wide open, not wearing a veil, and allying herself with Satan. Women outside the asylum don't fare well either. Narguiss is haunted by her inability to bleed from her hymen on her wedding night, even though she is a virgin. Her father, dishonored, killed himself that night. Ganat, like many if not most of the women in Egypt, has had a clitoridectomy. Throughout, women are chastised, belittled, and beaten. Passages from the Koran and the Bible are cited, suggesting that Islam and Christianity are to blame. The asylum setting allows Saadawi to include God and the Devil as two deluded inmates. At one point, the two scuffle in a cynical take on the battle between good and evil. By the end of the book, the Devil is revealed to be the scapegoat that allows God to do his worst to women. God whispers to the Devil, who is now gone, ``You made the world so rich for me....'' A poetic and beautiful novel about a great ugliness—the systematic and widespread oppression of half of Egypt.

Pub Date: Nov. 1, 1994

ISBN: 0-520-08889-1

Page Count: 233

Publisher: Univ. of California

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1, 1994

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Tinny perhaps, but still a minutely rendered and impressively steady feminist vision of apocalypse.


The time is the not-so-distant future, when the US's spiraling social freedoms have finally called down a reaction, an Iranian-style repressive "monotheocracy" calling itself the Republic of Gilead—a Bible-thumping, racist, capital-punishing, and misogynistic rule that would do away with pleasure altogether were it not for one thing: that the Gileadan women, pure and true (as opposed to all the nonbelieving women, those who've ever been adulterous or married more than once), are found rarely fertile.

Thus are drafted a whole class of "handmaids," whose function is to bear the children of the elite, to be fecund or else (else being certain death, sent out to be toxic-waste removers on outlying islands). The narrative frame for Atwood's dystopian vision is the hopeless private testimony of one of these surrogate mothers, Offred ("of" plus the name of her male protector). Lying cradled by the body of the barren wife, being meanwhile serviced by the husband, Offred's "ceremony" must be successful—if she does not want to join the ranks of the other disappeared (which include her mother, her husband—dead—and small daughter, all taken away during the years of revolt). One Of her only human conduits is a gradually developing affair with her master's chauffeur—something that's balanced more than offset, though, by the master's hypocritically un-Puritan use of her as a kind of B-girl at private parties held by the ruling men in a spirit of nostalgia and lust. This latter relationship, edging into real need (the master's), is very effectively done; it highlights the handmaid's (read Everywoman's) eternal exploitation, profane or sacred ("We are two-legged wombs, that's all: sacred vessels, ambulatory chalices"). Atwood, to her credit, creates a chillingly specific, imaginable night-mare. The book is short on characterization—this is Atwood, never a warm writer, at her steeliest—and long on cynicism—it's got none of the human credibility of a work such as Walker Percy's Love In The Ruins. But the scariness is visceral, a world that's like a dangerous and even fatal grid, an electrified fence.

Tinny perhaps, but still a minutely rendered and impressively steady feminist vision of apocalypse.

Pub Date: Feb. 17, 1985

ISBN: 038549081X

Page Count: -

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin

Review Posted Online: Sept. 16, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 1985

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A modern day fable, with modern implications in a deceiving simplicity, by the author of Dickens. Dali and Others (Reynal & Hitchcock, p. 138), whose critical brilliance is well adapted to this type of satire. This tells of the revolt on a farm, against humans, when the pigs take over the intellectual superiority, training the horses, cows, sheep, etc., into acknowledging their greatness. The first hints come with the reading out of a pig who instigated the building of a windmill, so that the electric power would be theirs, the idea taken over by Napoleon who becomes topman with no maybes about it. Napoleon trains the young puppies to be his guards, dickers with humans, gradually instigates a reign of terror, and breaks the final commandment against any animal walking on two legs. The old faithful followers find themselves no better off for food and work than they were when man ruled them, learn their final disgrace when they see Napoleon and Squealer carousing with their enemies... A basic statement of the evils of dictatorship in that it not only corrupts the leaders, but deadens the intelligence and awareness of those led so that tyranny is inevitable. Mr. Orwell's animals exist in their own right, with a narrative as individual as it is apt in political parody.

Pub Date: Aug. 26, 1946

ISBN: 0452277507

Page Count: 114

Publisher: Harcourt, Brace

Review Posted Online: Nov. 2, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 1946

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