One of our country’s finest writers gorges herself on Gilead – and finds herself wishing for more osmosis between the Booker-shortlisted new novel and the horror-story politics playing out around us.
Over the past five days I’ve re-read Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel The Handmaid’s Tale, caught myself up with the MGM/Hulu TV series of the same name and read the highly-anticipated sequel The Testaments released yesterday. After I posted a photo of my copy of The Testaments on Instagram one of my friends asked, ‘Do I need to reconnect with The Handmaid’s Tale first? I read it a very long time ago, remember the gist of it but not the characters and haven’t watched the series.’ I feel like one of the most important things a review of The Testaments can do is answer this question without spoiling anything. I guess my answer is I’m glad I did but not just for plot reasons. There are some exciting pay-offs for close-readers/watchers but the main reason I’m happy I engaged in a run-up to The Testaments is that it’s extremely compelling to see the story of Gilead develop over 35 years.
In the acknowledgements Atwood writes, “… before the actual placing of words on pages, The Testaments was written partly in the minds of the readers of its predecessor The Handmaid’s Tale, who kept asking what happened after the end of that novel. Thirty-five years is a long time to think about possible answers, and the answers have changed as society itself has changed, and as possibilities have become actualities. The citizens of many countries, including the United States, are under more stresses now than they were three decades ago.”
In linear time, the story of Gilead starts in The Handmaid’s Tale. The architects of Gilead use a series of natural and manufactured disasters to justify a coup and form a totalitarian state. Through their system of forcibly assigning every woman a role – wife, aunt or handmaid – Gilead’s leaders set out to solve falling fertility rates and gendered violence. Wives are wives, aunts do not marry and are in control of the ‘female sphere’ and handmaids are the breeding stock of the privileged classes. The story of Gilead is continued in seasons two and three of the television series, which goes ‘off-book’ and expands on the original novel, and now comes to a resting place, 15 years after the time of the first book, in The Testaments.
The timeline coalesces around a handmaid who we first meet as Offred and get to know by her original name, June. June is an exceptionally well-chosen teller of The Handmaid’s Tale because her life has been transformed by the rise of Gilead – she tells us about life before, during and after the take-over. The television series introduces other stories and citizens of Gilead, while The Testaments focuses on a later generation, born into it. Despite this, June is ever-present, a magnet to the iron filings of the tales explored as the story of Gilead becomes more and more far-reaching.
To re-read The Handmaid’s Tale in 2019 is awe-inspiring. It’s a quieter book than I remembered, spare – nothing is wasted. Re-reading it I realised how the huge space it’s taken up in me since I read it 20 or so years ago was created with a small tool – like how a kitchen knife can empty you of all your blood. I realised that, possibly, The Handmaid’s Tale invents an approach to writing the future; the domestic as an explanation of the global. Which now seems obvious as a product of the personal as exemplar of the political. You might not need to re-read The Handmaid’s Tale to enjoy The Testaments but you should, because it’s an incredible book.
It’s also a quiet, interior novel. Naturally, the version that is made over and expanded for television is more concerned with exteriority – the people around June, the places she goes, the systems she fights against. So it also seems right that The Testaments should be a different novel from The Handmaid’s Tale; that it should have a wider, more cinematic scope. That it should have an eye on the people around June, where they have come from and where they end up.
Atwood’s famous, terrifying prescience is part of what has made her masterpiece’s reintroduction to mainstream culture through the television series so marked. There’s the reproductive rights element – abortion clinics are bombed in pre-Gilead much as they were in 1985 America – but my stomach turned as I read the book predicting, in the off-hand way it has, the scapegoating of Islamic terrorism as integral to the rise of the populist fascist. In this way, its politics might be more intersectional than The Testaments, written in an era when we are reassessing different outdated ideas of gender and privilege.
Some friends and I were talking the other night about that weird effect of looking back at how culture imagined ‘the future’ at different moments in time. The one style of mini dress worn by the one shape of women in 1970’s Logan’s Run or the punk pensioners wearing mohawks and safety pins in 1984’s Max Headroom. Famously, the Gilead books and the television series abide by the axiom, “no event is allowed in that doesn’t have a precedent in human history”. Which gives the Gilead story the rare opportunity to re-invent its future in its resulting installments. In 2017, when the television series is made, there is more “human history” as precedent than there was in 1985. The series is a lot queerer and browner than the novel and I’d hoped this would open doors for The Testaments to have a more intersectional lens on some of the feminist questions the Gilead regime raises. It is after all a story that has, as one of its base horrors, the equating of “woman” with reproductive potential.
It’s interesting, possibly difficult, to read The Testaments in a time of rising violence toward transgender people and highly charged opposition to moves toward self-identification for gender changes on birth certificates. The Testaments includes a few lines about a man hanged for wearing his wife’s underwear and includes at points a deep understanding of the place of the first nations people in the land now called Canada. But The Testaments feels a lot more loyal to the Gilead of the novel than the Gilead of the television series. It feels like the story told in The Testaments was set on a track back in 1985 when The Handmaid’s Tale was written and has not been able to leave that track.
One of the things that is extremely live when doing a Gilead binge is the extent to which the story leaks into real life and vice versa. Both novels are presented as historical documents. An analysis included in both books, in the form of appendices, makes it necessary to engage with the texts as living documents. To assess them in the light of outside information. To transport ourselves to an imagined future looking back at the books as voices from history. The reader is very active. We are told a story directly, we are wondered about, petitioned, played with, implicated. As Atwood says, the books are “written in the minds of the readers”. This leakage perhaps has its most compelling fruition in the figure of the handmaid, which, prompted by the television series, has taken a major role in activism. Women wearing red dresses and white wings, the uniform of the handmaid, appear at protests for women’s rights everywhere. I think this is where my disappointment stems from. The Testaments feels far less politically charged than The Handmaid’s Tale novel or television series. It feels like this leakage – from real world to the book and back again – has somehow been blocked.
At the launch of The Testaments, in London, there were women dressed in the green uniforms of the prospective child-brides of Gilead. The TV series pulls back the curtain on what befalls these young and fertile women through the character of Eden who is married to Nick, in season two of the television series and in The Testaments two child-brides take a major role. Child marriage seems like an incredibly charged political issue. In Florida, 16,400 children, some as young as 13, were married from 2000-2017, and this is only the second-highest incidence of child marriage in the United States after Texas, where 40,000 children were married from 2000-2014. Forced marriage is used to shield perpetrators of sexual abuse from prosecution and as an aid to sex trafficking. But there is something missing in the portrayal of child marriage in The Testaments. Perhaps it’s something in the tone of the narrators: there’s an effort apparent to differentiate between a daughter of Gilead and one living in the freedom of Canada, and maybe this is part of the distancing effect. However, I think it has more to do with the pressure the book feels to tell readers what happened after the end of the first novel. To tie things up.
I don’t like it when people talk about the book they wish someone had written, so right now I hate myself. If this was a response to a book I’d written I’d be thinking, “This is an unhelpful reader.” And I think, in this respect, I am. My grandmother told me that if I have nothing nice to say I should say nothing. But that doesn’t feel in the spirit of Atwood or a book about silenced women.
I’m glad I read The Testaments, I recommend everyone reads it. I think one of the big successes of it is that it leaves The Handmaid’s Tale intact even though it resolves so much of it. The questions in The Handmaid’s Tale can remain and agitate. The Testaments takes up a different space in my consciousness. This is 100% due to Atwood’s craft. Both novels are presented as testimony and through this form Atwood has been able to describe distinct experiences of Gilead over time.
Further, thanks largely to Atwood’s work, the world is full of the types of books I want The Testaments to be. And in terms of what it sets out to do – conclude the story started in The Handmaid’s Tale – it is a complete success. There are breath-taking twists and revelations – Atwood is in complete control of a complex and far-reaching narrative. The story moves compellingly to an ending that I think will disappoint no one.
And maybe that’s what we need.
With The Handmaid’s Tale Atwood picked at certain loose ends in our society and held them up. She made us question ourselves, in ways that endure. Perhaps what The Testaments does is offer some much-needed resolution. Elizabeth Knox recently talked about The Absolute Book as an act of wish-fulfilment. Maybe there is something of that, too, in The Testaments.
On screen, season two and three of The Handmaid’s Tale are grueling. At moments I’ve felt like it’s verging on some kind of torture fetish. The first novel is still upsetting – deeply so in the way it stands unresolved. In contrast, part of the engine of The Testaments is a challenging invitation to have compassion, and if not compassion, understanding. For this time, one of the voices telling her story is Aunt Lydia. The worst of the worst. The most unforgivable. Her voice and others in The Testaments spoke to me in a way that made it impossible not to be aware of my comfortable house, my ability to read and the freedoms these activities bring. The television show made it easy for me to judge the goodies and the baddies of Gilead. The Testaments, in providing intimate access to the most private thoughts, complicates everything all over again.
The Testaments, by Margaret Atwood (Chatto & Windus, $48) is available at Unity Books.