The Handmaid’s Tale, perhaps Margaret Atwood’s most famous novel, was published in 1985, much to the surprise of anyone who has read it in the last couple of years or indeed, watched the television series on Hulu. However, both the novel’s and the TV show’s popularity has many readers eagerly searching for more books like The Handmaid’s Tale.
The concepts seem almost more relevant now than they would have been 35 years ago, matching up with many of the fears we have as a modern-day society. When Offred’s world is taken over by religious fanatics, she must learn to live in her “rightful place,” as a handmaid, a woman who is to get pregnant for a virtuous family who cannot have children naturally.
She gets no say in this matter – her past indiscretions are what has landed her in such a role, and if she doesn’t fulfil her task, she risks being sent to the colonies, or, simply, to death on the wall.
The novels listed below comment on similar themes, the societal role of women, the oppression they face and what happens to those who do not comply. Books like The Handmaid’s Tale are commentaries on how far women have come, but also on how quickly that progress can disintegrate.
8 Books like The Handmaid’s Tale
The Testaments, by Margaret Atwood
Naturally, The Testaments has to appear on any list of books like The Handmaid’s Tale. The much anticipated follow up story, The Testaments takes place years after the end of Offred’s story, giving us even more insight into Gilead, and the varieties of people who live within it.
Following an Aunt, a Child of Gilead, and a teenager living in Canada, away from the corruption, the many cogs of Gilead are explored, as anxieties and cracks in this way of living begin to make themselves apparent.
As in The Handmaid’s Tale, the oppression of women is clear in how each of these characters live their lives, but it also depicts the small elements of power they have acquired in their positions within Gilead, and how they independently use these in order to create a better life for themselves.
It is no wonder The Testaments won the Booker Prize in 2019, with over 30 years of build-up and though I worried it might be derivative, or unable to live up to the hype of the first novel, it exceeded my expectations dramatically.
Girl, by Edna O’Brien
A rather different novel from The Handmaid’s Tale – Edna O’Brien’s Girl isn’t dystopian but it reads like it is at times. It is very much a horror story, perhaps because of its basis in fact, and how women are treated within the Boko Haram in Nigeria.
The story follows one girl in particular, Maryam, as she is kidnapped from her home and brought to a camp, where she is raped repeatedly along with other girls from her town, not much older than thirteen or fourteen.
As terrible as this is, this is only the beginning of Maryam’s struggles. She is married off to one of the jihadi soldiers, Mahmoud, and unfortunately falls pregnant by him, and even worse, gives birth to a baby girl, and not a boy as they hoped. When Maryam escapes with her baby, it would appear her troubles are over, but they are not, as she must make the dangerous journey home, and even if she gets there, what will her life look like?
At times a desperately difficult read, O’Brien brings light to the terrors of the Boko Haram in Nigeria in this highly accomplished novel. The oppression of women is the main theme in this novel, it pervades the pages and is inescapable.
Just as in books like The Handmaid’s Tale, it examines how, though in some parts of the world, women’s rights have come far, in others, they remain little and skewed. A beautiful and haunting read.
Their Eyes Were Watching God, by Zora Neale Hurston
Again, Their Eyes Were Watching God is not a dystopian novel, but one that deals with the role of women nonetheless, in this case, black women. Janey dreams of falling in love one day and being free, a dream that is quickly dashed when she is married off to an old farmer who she cannot like, let alone love.
When she escapes this marriage, Janey resolves to find something better for herself, but unfortunately comes to learn that she can be mistaken on what she thought she wanted, and what she thought she needed. Hurston brings us through Janey’s life, the trials and tribulations of finding someone to love, and how sometimes, that love is just not enough.
Like Offred in The Handmaid’s Tale, Janey must find a way of living which is not just surviving, which proves to be very difficult in the society she resides in. She is oppressed by everyone she encounters, even other women.
Never Let Me Go, by Kazuo Ishiguro
Never Let Me Go is a unique novel in the sense that there are not traditional gender roles, at least not for this species. Kathy, Ruth and Tommy appear, to the outside eye, as normal humans, when in fact they have been genetically modified, using the DNA make-up of real people, to become organ donors, a life which they neither choose nor find the courage to fight against.
Our focus is on Kathy, who tells us how she has become a carer, and though this is posed as something she chose to do, with the lack of options bestowed to her, it is more something she is forced into doing. Like Offred, she must take up this role in society, if it only means she gets to live a little longer than others like her.
The story is heart-breaking, as Kathy seemingly steps into her fate with not so much as a tear shed to the life she has to live. Unlike Offred, she doesn’t seek to rebel against the conditions of her life; she simply gets on with it, and brings the reader through her childhood, in order to try have us understand how she was lucky, in comparison to other children like her.
Ishiguro explores oppression and coercion in Never Let Me Go, much as Atwood explores it in The Handmaid’s Tale.
Already read this novel? Check out our list of books like Never Let Me Go!
Only Ever Yours, by Louise O’Neill
Only Ever Yours, a dystopian YA novel by Louise O’Neill, is what I like to call a mixture between the movie “Mean Girls” and the novel The Handmaid’s Tale – there is an element of teenage cattiness to it but that’s because it focuses on an all-girls institution, where these young ladies are on the path to becoming women, and with that, for many of them, wives.
The novel centres in on frieda, whose name is purposefully not capitalised, who is competing with all the other girls in her class in order to be married off to someone wealthy. Their only goal is to serve the men in their lives, whether that is as sex slaves, nuns or wives – this is not unlike the different roles women enter into in other novels like The Handmaid’s Tale.
From the beginning of their lives, these girls are oppressed and moulded into what society has deemed as worthy, and though at times the novel is a little juvenile, particularly in reference to the petty dramas and bullying the girls partake in, it makes comments about the role of the church in Ireland, and how far women have come, but still have to go in modern-day society.
Vox, by Christina Dalcher
Vox is a novel heavily focused on female oppression and has been linked to The Handmaid’s Tale in how they both examine how this works in totalitarian states.
Jean used to be a respected doctor, but when a new government comes into power that decrees women can only speak 100 words a day, Jean literally loses her right to speak. Soon, Jean and every other woman in America has to wear a bracelet called a counter, where their words are counted, and if they go over 100, an electric shock is administered, while men continue speaking as much as they ever did.
For Jean, her main concern is her daughter, who she must try to stop from speaking more than her allocated amount. When she is offered a deal with the government to be able to continue working, while she fears the consequences of her research, she finds she must discover a way of freeing herself and her daughter from this world they’ve found themselves in.
Like The Handmaid’s Tale, there is a big emphasis on mother and daughter relationships, and the importance of this, and how in these dystopian worlds they can be heavily warped. Perhaps lacks the same level of seamless storytelling as The Handmaid’s Tale, Vox still presents a very similar novel about women and oppression.
Alias Grace, by Margaret Atwood
Another Atwood novel, and one that is speculative although not dystopian at all, Alias Grace tells the story of Grace Marks and reimagines her tale, which is entirely based on fact.
Grace Marks was a real person who was accused, along with a man she worked with, of murdering a gentleman and his housekeeper in the 19th Century. The lore behind Grace’s life story is mixed up and there are a lot of holes to be filled, which Atwood does in this novel.
In the present day, which is 1843, Grace has been convicted and is living out a prison sentence, when a therapist of sorts, Dr Simon Jordan, approaches the case and wishes to discover the truth behind the murders, hoping to extract it from Grace, who most believe is crazy.
As Dr Jordan learns of Grace’s life, it becomes clear she has been oppressed by men for most of it and has suffered a great deal, which either lead her to commit this desperate act or have been made an accomplice against her will.
Very much in the same style as The Handmaid’s Tale, and written just as well as you’d expect, Alias Grace is brilliant.
Queenie, by Candice Carty-Williams
Candice Carty-Williams’ Queenie is the most comedic novel on this list of books like The Handmaid’s Tale, but it deals with female oppression in a very modern-day light. Queenie appears to be confident, happy, sexually liberated, and just going through a rough patch – she’s broken up with her boyfriend of three years, and has just suffered a miscarriage, a pregnancy she did not even realise she was in the middle of.
The novel jokes about a lot of serious themes, as does the protagonist, and it is only the further you delve into the novel that you see the damage and trauma Queenie has suffered in her life, through her sexual history and domestic violence as a child.
It certainly has funnier and light-hearted moments, more so than the other novels on this list, but it deals with perhaps the more subtle oppressions women deal with in the modern-day, incidents that are not emphasised or sensationalised. It deals with the world we are currently living in, one that you could imagine, if not watched out for, could turn into one like Gilead.
Just as in other novels like The Handmaid’s Tale, this book concerns itself with the way women are controlled in the workplace and in the home, and though Queenie certainly doesn’t undergo the horrors that June does, she faces a multitude of uncomfortable and, at times, close to non-consensual acts that force her into a near breakdown.
Women’s oppression is constantly the subject matter of novels – women have come far, but not far enough. Even with movies such as Bombshell shedding light on the way women are treated in the media, we are constantly being shown how much further women need to come before they are on equal footing with men.
The Handmaid’s Tale, whether you read the book or watch the series, deals with the extremes, of how badly women’s rights could regress if allowed, and all the novels on this list deal with this same theme, whether that’s in a dystopian setting, a past one, or the modern-day.
Are you looking for more books like The Handmaid’s Tale? Have any recommendations that didn’t make the list? Let us know in the comments!