Introduced by the author
Illustrated by Anna & Elena Balbusso
‘Science fiction has monsters and spaceships; speculative fiction could really happen.’ Margaret Atwood’s chilling cautionary tale is illustrated by the Balbusso sisters.
‘There’s a lot that doesn’t bear thinking about. Thinking can hurt your chances, and I intend to last.’ Narrator Offred is a Handmaid serving the Republic of Gilead – formerly part of the United States. Her role is to bear children for her Commander, whose wife is unable to conceive. If Offred refuses, she will be hanged or sent to die of radiation sickness in the Colonies. Yet she can remember a different life, when she had a home, a husband, and – most agonisingly – her own child.
The Handmaid’s Tale portrays a chilling dystopia, with its military hierarchy of Angels, Guardians and Eyes, and its Birthmobiles, Econowives, Prayvaganzas and Salvagings (executions). Offred makes frequent references to the world she once knew and the freedom she took for granted – having her own bank account, wearing her hair uncovered, even something as simple as using nail varnish. Atwood skilfully dramatises the contrast between the grotesque strangeness of Gilead and ‘ordinary’ life going on elsewhere, as when Offred and a companion encounter a group of tourists from Japan. Forbidden to take pictures, the tourists ask, through an interpreter, if the women are happy. Both fascinated and repelled by the Japanese women’s ‘Westernized’ clothing, Offred replies that they are very happy. ‘I have to say something. What else can I say?’
Asked whether her book could be classed as science fiction, Atwood replied: ‘Science fiction has monsters and spaceships; speculative fiction could really happen.’ First published in 1986, The Handmaid’s Tale was inspired by contemporary Western fears about falling birth-rates as well as by religious fundamentalism both in the West and East. It was a critical and popular success, launching its Canadian author on the international stage. It won the Governor General’s Award for Fiction, one of Canada’s most prestigious literary prizes, and the inaugural Arthur C. Clarke Award for science fiction as well as being shortlisted for the Booker Prize. Anna and Elena Balbusso’s stunning illustrations skilfully highlight the regimented and hierarchical nature of society in Gilead.
‘We really appreciate that Folio understood that this was a perfect book for us. For a long time we hoped for a book like this and we loved the challenge. The theme of a woman’s body appealed to our sensibility. The story gave us the opportunity to create strong graphic images.
To give a visionary interpretation and to create the right atmosphere for the story, we chose a futurist tone with accentuated perspectives and strong light. We used few colours and with a prevalence of red, black and white. Futurism, Russian Constructivism and fascist-period design were our references.
It was important to have a certain freedom of interpretation to better express what the writing suggests. It was very difficult to choose scenes and we gave up on many interesting options. Instead we tried to focus our attention on the woman’s body. Some situations in the story are very complex and we preferred to leave the interpretation of those to the readers of this exceptional text!
Anna and Elena Balbusso are award-winning artists who live and work in Milan, Italy. They have illustrated several Folio titles including Pride and Prejudice, Alexander Pushkin’s The Queen of Spades and Other Stories, and new Folio edition Twelfth Night.
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Review by anon on 11th Jun 2015
"This particular version of The Handmaid's Tale is fantastic. The art reflects the expressiveness and abstraction of the writing well. As a sci-fi tale (speculative fiction Atwood would say) this s..." [read more]