I started Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale not knowing anything about it except that it was maybe sci-fi-esque and dark. I don't think that describes it well, but I won't spoil the experience of going at it clean by trying to summarize.
The pacing feels leisurely, but the book is a fast read with short chapters and simple language. Atwood does choose her language carefully, though, to create an impressionist sense of a woman so scared and troubled that she isn't able to sit down and think carefully on her situation. It's told primarily in present tense, with the past flowing in and out of the narrative without warning.
An example of the rich, impressionist language (language that also helps keep up the pace):
I walk around to the back door, open it, go in, set my basket down on the kitchen table. The table has been scrubbed off, cleared of flour; today's bread, freshly baked, is cooling on its rack. The kitchen smells of yeast, a nostalgic smell. It reminds me of other kitchens, kitchens that were mine.
Characterization is not the book's strongest factor. The narrator is nameless and she's lost touch with herself. Readers are sympathetic to her, but she's not the main draw. The situation she's thrust into is--the storyline elements of piecing together the mystery of what really happened, the what-if futuristic aspects, the nostalgic flashes to the narrator's past, the politics and hierarchy of this society.
The book is full of details of the narrator's everyday life, her clothes, her room, smells, the scenery. Again, these add to the rich, impressionistic experience of reading. Atwood focuses on things one can see and hear to evoke what the narrator must be feeling because she is so entrenched and not able to describe her feelings.
The overall experience of quiet, pervasive, everyday horror reminds me of Toni Morrison, Tim O'Brien, and Cormac McCarthy. Any other readalikes you can think of?
****Side note! Just discovered Reader2 in looking for a book cover. Does anyone know anything about this site?? At first glance it seems cool, and I picked up another Handmaid's Tale readalike recommendation: "reminded me of Ayn Rand's "Anthem" and Lois Lowry's "The Giver" with its overall plot." and a link to more recommendations, seemingly based on a user generated tag cloud.