I first read The Handmaid’s Tale when I was 17, twenty years ago, and whilst I thoroughly enjoyed it and became a lifelong lover of all things Atwood, I did have a few issues with it. I decided to listen to it again recently because I really wanted to read The Testaments, which had been sitting on my shelf since publication day (September 2019). I remembered the premise of the story, but I had forgotten many of the small details which bring the book to life, so when I saw an audiobook available at my local library, I quickly added it to my basket (it was a virtual visit, in the year 2020!)
The Handmaid’s Tale is a deeply political book. Its entire premise, and what makes it a spectacular read, is its central dystopian premise of women’s bodies being controlled by the state as a mechanism for creating children. Interestingly I learnt in a recent interview with Atwood that the demise in birth-rate was attributed to environmental factors, which feels very contemporary given the book was written in 1985, and feeds into the prophetic nature of Atwood’s work. The rhetoric around freedom and what it means on an individual and collective level is fascinating: it was 20 years ago, on my first reading and it is even more so now with a greater understanding of global politics especially in relation to women.
What makes The Handmaid’s Tale so exceptional is that the premise is not as farfetched as many other dystopian novels. In fact, just in these last two years we have seen so many regressive policies regarding women and their reproductive rights. There is almost daily news on Climate change and the devastating impact it is having on everything, including humans.
Its interesting to me as when I first read this book as a much younger woman I thought of it as an attack on Muslim women, especially as the handmaids are dressed (oppressed) in garb that closely resembles the Hijab and abaya that is traditionally worn by Arab women and increasingly Muslim women all over the world. This re-reading of the book, at a time in my life when I have greater understanding of gender politics, of religious doctrines, including my own and of power structures, especially the patriarchy, I realised how wrong I was with my initial interpretation. Again, Atwood herself has spoken about the book being based on the Alt-right Christian movements in the United States, and given the attack on Capitol Hill just last week its easy to imagine the birth of the Republic of Gilead, in the land of the free.
One of the most disturbing elements of the book is the lack of a strong male voice dictating the conditions the women find themselves in. The Aunts, women who are unable to bear children themselves, are particularly deplorable as they seem to be entirely complicit in keeping the misogynistic wheels of the regime turning. They are responsible for the re-education of the handmaids and determining where the girls and women in Gilead find themselves. In fact, almost all the men in the book come across as feeble and pathetic whilst the female characters are much more nuanced. The regime knew exactly how to turn women against each other, to create resentments and insecurities, much like marketing strategies today. The hierarchy of power amongst the women is a constant balancing act. The Handmaids, while technically at the bottom, still hold so much power as they are fertile and able to produce offspring, ideally female, to continue the legacy of Gilead. The wives clearly resent them although they also need them. The Aunts, at the top of the pyramid, are named after popular cosmetic brands of the time, to make them seem familiar to the younger women, which I thought was a very clever and typical little detail that Atwood adds to her novels, a little nod to the power of consumerism and capitalism.
I really appreciated the ending of The Handmaid’s Tale, the Symposium held in the future, looking back at Gilead and trying to understand the regime, using The Handmaid’s Tale as a historical document. I’m not sure if Margaret Atwood intended on writing a sequel, or if she succumbed to the pressures of the fandom, but the final chapter certainly kept me curious as to how Gilead eventually fell. I think as a reader it was important for me to know that Gilead did eventually fail, as all oppressive regimes eventually do, as it allowed the otherwise mostly bleak novel to end on an optimistic and pragmatic note.
As soon as I finished The Handmaid’s Tale I turned my attention to The Testaments, I needed to find out instantly what was going to happen next and the direction Atwood took with the sequel. I’m so glad I gave myself that refresher in the first novel as I was able to enjoy the second so much more with it fresh in my mind.
I decided to Google the definition of ‘testaments’ – something that serves as a sign or evidence of a specified fact, event, or quality – and it turns out, that is a perfect description of this book. The book consists of three testaments, two transcripts of witness testimonies 369 A and B, and the testimony of The Ardua Hall Holograph, my favourite Character off all in this series, Aunt Lydia. I was so pleased with the direction Atwood decided to go with The Testaments, I was desperately curious, like almost all the readers of the previous book, to find out how The Republic fell and as both books hinted, shadows within Gilead were working within the highest echelons of its society.
The story is tightly woven, immaculately thought through and delivered exactly what this fan of the series wanted. The fall of the mighty was orchestrated in the mind of a woman it oppressed. A woman it made the grave error to underestimate. I really enjoyed the character of Aunt Lydia, I appreciated the inclusion of her history, from a time long before Gilead as well as her capture and her subsequent choices. I thought she was the perfect, although flawed, hero and was glad that Gilead collapsed from inside rather than rescued by those on the outside. The book raises some interesting questions about countries, borders, geopolitics, and ethics. It also asks you to consider what is and what isn’t acceptable in times of war or within an oppressive regime, how far could you go to infiltrate an organisation and what, if anything, is the acceptable price for freedom?
The story of the other two witnesses, Agnus and Daisy, is a lot more straightforward, but equally compelling. I imagine Atwood taking hold of all the loose threads in The Handmaids Tale, and weaving them all together to create the story in The Testaments. Agnus and Daisy are completely polarised characters, one a Teen growing up in Canada to liberal parents and the other bought up in Gilead in the home of a high-ranking officer and his kind, devoted wife. We find out a lot about the running of Gilead through these testimonies and are introduced to some of the other characters in the story, including some, like Agnus, who have only known life in Gilead so imagining an alternative is not entirely comprehensible to them, nor necessary something they want. I thought this added an interesting dimension to the dilemma of Gilead: to rescue people who are not asking to be saved.
As a diehard Atwood fan, it will come as no surprise that I highly recommend these books to everyone. I love to read fiction that pushes me to the very edge of my comfort zone and makes me ask questions about how I (we) live now. The Handmaid’s Tale and The Testaments are not my favourite books by Margaret Atwood, they aren’t even in the top five, but they are nonetheless fantastic books that will leave you with a chill and an appreciation of what writers at the top of their game can achieve. They should be read, if only to realise how precarious freedom truly is and how insurrections and rebellions start slowly and snowball, much like events in recent week in the real world.