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This non-fiction book was written after the author spent a number of months living with a family in Kabul.  The head of the family is Sultan Khan, a bookseller who has defied the authorities for years to sell books to the citizens of Kabul.  The book essentially describes normal life for the family, with each chapter concentrating on a different event or aspect of life.

The writing flows very easily and almost reads like a novel.  It’s constantly interesting, but always frustrating.  Sultan is liberal in many ways – he believes in encouraging knowledge and education, and is glad when women achieve governmental positions. He believes in banishing the uncomfortable burka, and is an intelligent and cultured man.  But for all that he believes would be good for society, he still treats his own family – particularly the females – as second class citizens.  He takes a second wife (a young teenage girl), although he already has a loyal and intelligent wife who is devastated at his choice to marry again, and his youngest sister Leila is treated as barely more than a slave, for little or no appreciation.

The oppression of women is a constant theme throughout the book.  For example, when a man decides that he wants to marry a particular woman, he has to approach her parents or the head of her family with his monetary offer for their daughter.  The potential bride has no say in whether she will marry the man or not.  Indeed, brides to be are not even supposed to look their husband in the eye prior to the wedding.

While I could not like Sultan, due to his treatment of his family, he was certainly an interesting character.  However, the character for whom I most cared was certainly Leila.  Reading about her life made me very thankful for my own life.

The book also features some interesting information regarding the history and culture of Afghanistan, and it’s easy to read style make this a book which I can heartily recommend to anyone who is interested in the country and the lives of those who dwell within it.

Shocking at times and always thought provoking – I definitely recommend this book, and will be keeping my eyes open for further work by this author.

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This is a chilling story of a very different America, sometime in the 21st century.  It is narrated by Offred, a ‘Handmaid’ – a woman who exists only for the purposes of procreation, and whose life beyond that purpose is worthless.

In the world in which the novel takes place, women are placed into categories, with no choice or education.  Offred’s tale is that of many other Handmaid’s – a woman who belongs to a wealthy childless couple, and who is expected to provide them with a child.  The details of exactly how America came to be like this are hazy, although the reader can surmise that it is probably through nuclear attack.

Offred recalls her life before this new society – the Gileadean Society – came into being. A life that many readers would recognise – happily married with a daughter and a good job (when she did not realise how happy she actually was); and how, shortly after the inception of the Gileadeans, she was herded to a centre with other prospective Handmaid’s to be ‘trained’ for her new role in life.  She also describes her life with the family with whom she lives – the Commander (what he is a Commander of is never clarified) and his wife Serena Joy.

This was a fantastic book – extremely well written, and despite the initial absurdity of the premise, I soon found myself seeing how such events could unfold (indeed, many of the shocking events in the book have taken place in one form or another throughout history).  Characterisation is excellent.  Offred was entirely believable, and I had the uncomfortable feeling that she could easily have been someone I knew.  Also believable were the couple who she lived with, her friend Moira and various other characters. The fact that each and every character was so well drawn, and so easy to invest in added to the disturbing sense that this was a reality one could imagine all too well.

There is much that is left unsaid in this book, and therefore a certain amount that a reader must assume.  Margaret Atwood’s writing is spare, but she has a wonderful way of placing you in the moment.  There is a sinister undertone to this story; a sense of apprehension about what might be about to come next.

Mainly this book made me feel relieved – relieved that this is not my life, and relieved that I could put the book down and leave the world which the narrator inhabited.  This does not mean that I did not enjoy reading it.  I would recommend this book very highly indeed.  It’s not often that a book comes along totally rocks my world – this is one of those rare occasions when I’m prepared to say that I think this just might be my new all-time favourite read.

(Author’s website can be found here.)

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