I first read Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale” many years ago, as a young woman just out of college, and I still remember the hushed chill it created around me. The tale of a woman living in a nightmarish fundamentalist regime, in which she is forced to bear children for the state, it was published in 1985 and became an instant classic. Atwood, a rare writer who can create a dystopian world in language both elegantly literary and starkly intimate, pulled the reader in instantly, becoming co-conspirators with the rebellious Offred, who dreamed of escape but dwelt in a frightening reality.
In the more than three decades since the publication of “The Handmaid’s Tale,” it has never left the public consciousness. A 1990 movie and a 2017 television series now in its third season (with Atwood serving as consulting producer for the latter) brought still more attention – and Atwood, as she wrote in an afterward to her just-published sequel, “The Testaments,” knew that eventually she needed to return to its world.
“ … (B)efore 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,’ ” she wrote, “who kept asking what happened after the end of that novel.”
And now, we know. “The Testaments” – longer than “The Handmaid’s Tale,” and in many ways even richer – is finally here. Quite possibly the most anticipated novel of the year, it was shortlisted for the Booker Prize ahead of its Sept. 10 release.
Reading it, I was struck by how it felt to be back in Gilead (the name of the totalitarian state located in part of what was once the United States). That chill I remembered returned, perhaps multiplied this time; current politics make Gilead uncomfortably closer than we might like to think. And Atwood, so brilliant at writing about the complicated inner lives and interrelationships of women (see “Cat’s Eye,” “Alias Grace,” “The Robber Bride” and so many more), here takes us inside the minds of not one, but three.
Structured as a trio of voices, taken from historical artifacts and legal testimony (hence the title), “The Testaments” quickly introduces us to three very different women. Agnes was a child born into Gilead, growing up in a prominent family and only slowly coming to question what was to her a normal life. Daisy grew up in Canada, watching news about Gilead on television and wondering why her parents treated her “like I was a prize cat they were cat-sitting.” And the third is Aunt Lydia herself, who opens the inner doors of Gilead to us, telling us – painfully, like pulling long-abscessed teeth – of how she transformed from family court judge to cattle-prod-armed enforcer.
“Why did I think it would nonetheless be business as usual,” Aunt Lydia remembers herself thinking, as a state of emergency was declared and the new regime swept into power. “Because we’d been hearing these things for so long, I suppose. You don’t believe the sky is falling until a chunk of it falls on you.”
“The Testaments” feels less like a sequel than a companion piece to “The Handmaid’s Tale.” Details from the previous book are filled in and connections to some of its plotlines are gradually revealed, like the colors of a terrifyingly vivid painting slowly emerging. There are, as in the previous book, welcome bits of ink-dark humor: the Aunts meet up at the pink-tabled Schlafly Café, stressed-out Wives can consult the Calm & Balm Clinic, and a visitor to Gilead notes that “(e)veryone was staring at me and smiling in a way that was part friendly and part hungry, like those scenes in horror movies where you know the villagers will turn out to be vampires.”
The wit provides a needed respite from the details, particularly those matter-of-factly provided by Agnes, of what life for a young woman in Gilead held. “I have still never been on a swing,” she notes. “It remains one of my wishes.”
But what makes the book most mesmerizing is Atwood’s working of the everyday into the unthinkable; her way of conveying how, in different degrees, these characters came to accept their reality, and even to become complicit in it. Aunt Lydia, whose voice quietly dominates the book, tells of how she came to “number myself among the faithful” – because it was safer. “Better to hurl rocks than to have them hurled at you,” she muses. “Or better for your chances of staying alive.”
In words impossible to read without shivering, she continues. “They knew that so well, the architects of Gilead. Their kind has always known that.”
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