I first read The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood about 10 years ago and recently reread it followed by the long-awaited sequel The Testaments. Atwood’s dystopian classic first published in 1985 depicts the Republic of Gilead, a totalitarian and patriarchal state created after the downfall of the United States some time in the 21st century. It is narrated by Offred, a handmaid who is forced to produce children for Commander Waterford and his wife Serena Joy.
As a reread, ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ was fresher in my mind than it would have been thanks to the recent television series which is a very faithful adaptation of the novel. I particularly admire Atwood’s skill at detailed world-building in relatively spare prose. Even though there isn’t a huge amount of description of what Offred’s surroundings look like or even much explanation about the creation of Gilead initially, Atwood paints a vivid and shocking portrait of this dystopian world, gradually building towards a dramatic conclusion.
‘The Testaments’ was the joint winner of the Booker Prize in 2019 along with ‘Girl, Woman, Other’ by Bernardine Evaristo. While the later seasons of the TV adaptation of ’The Handmaid’s Tale’ continue Offred’s story, the book sequel wisely avoids comparisons with the TV interpretation by leapfrogging some 15 years after the events depicted in the first book and introducing several new characters. The only significant character who returns in ‘The Testaments’ is Aunt Lydia who trains women to become handmaids. She is one of three narrators along with Agnes, a young woman who lives in Gilead, and Daisy, who now lives in Canada and learns that she was born in Gilead. Aunt Lydia’s perspective is the most interesting of the three, as it adds so much more complexity to what we learned about her in the first book. Like the later seasons of the TV series, the horrors faced by the women no longer has the same shock factor, but ‘The Testaments’ broadens our understanding of Gilead and is just as pithy and pacy as ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’.
The most effective dystopian fiction closely mirror real events and the terrifying scenarios in both books all have a precedent in modern history. Atwood’s research for ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ included Ceauşescu’s restriction of contraception in Romania, while ‘The Testaments’ appears to have been partly inspired by the plight of refugees as well as the #MeToo era. Like Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell, both books conclude with a metafictional transcript from an academic symposium of Gileadean studies towards the end of the 21st century. The section in ‘The Testaments’ is particularly important as it sows a few seeds of doubt concerning some of the revelations in the book, pertinently reminding the reader that the new characters’ possible connections with Offred are never definitively confirmed, and that certain “facts” might not be all they seem to be.