This book was wonderful, it was brilliant, it was thought-provoking and worldview-changing- dark and witty in equal measure. My boyfriend gave me the Handmaid’s Tale for Christmas and I drank it up in two days. Fifty pages into the first book, I ordered the sequel on Amazon, and finished it in three days, only owing to its lengthier size. I’m so glad I decided to start reading it a few years too late, so the sequel was instantly accessible and binge-able. I love Atwood’s style. It’s fresh, plain, gripping and lacks any of the frills and purple prose of so many other classics. I love it. The chapters are short and punchy, maintaining a cutthroat pace throughout. I’m not a huge fan of ridiculously long chapters in books (more than around thirty pages if you ask me), as they have a regrettable tendency to ‘sag’ in the middle. There’s nothing sagging here.
I’m already a fan of the dystopian genre. Trailblazers such as Orwell and Huxley have certainly paved the way for Atwoods imaginings of a grizzly future, but she puts a hugely fresh and inviting spin on it in imagining what it may like to be a woman in a dystopian future where a new form of extreme, conservative religious fanaticism takes control in America. It’s a tragedy that imagining the female perspective in a totalitarian, dystopian future is in some ways so subversive, but here we are.
Attwood’s future looks a lot like the past. Books and literacy are banned for almost all women, and all women live a life of abject servitude in one way or the other. Society is highly militarised and regimented, the skirts are long, the people are pious (or faking it), and government is in the hands of a few old white men. The fertility rate has dropped alarmingly, and the few fertile women who are unlucky enough to have performed some small act of subordination are punished through lives of forced concubinage in elite households. All the pivotal characters in both books are female, whether the heroines of their own story, such as Offred, Agnes and Nicole, or arch-villians such as Aunt Lydia. Atwood goes a long way to deconstructing Aunt Lydia’s fearsome and one-sided reputation from the Handmaid’s Tale in the Testaments, turning her into just the type of morally ambiguous villain I most enjoy. Throughout the book, our reader’s view goes from ‘she’s pure evil’ to questioning that assumption time and again until Aunt Lydia finally reveals her plan – to destroy Gilead from within. She’s more of an antihero than a ruthless femme fatale. We discover her beginnings in Gilead- faced with the simple choice of ‘adapt or die’, Aunt Lydia chooses to adapt and to once more climb the greasy, barbed pole still offered to ambitious women the world over. By the start of the Testaments, she has become the most feared and respected woman in Gilead, yet the corruption she uncovers has left a bitter taste in her mouth, and she finally decides that only she has the power to bring down the regime by releasing its secrets in a Assange-style bombshell.
It’s not difficult to work out within the first quarter of the book that both Agnes and Nicole are Offred’s daughters, so there isn’t much of a ‘big reveal’ there, but these books go so much deeper than that. Attwood has frequently claimed she did not write about anything which did not already exist in one way or another – Christian extremism, polygamy, patriarchy, militarism, a back-to-basics asceticism, restricting access to literature and learning, forced births, forced marriages, child marriages, concubinage, mass public executions etc. We are only kidding ourselves if we think Attwood ‘made it up’ – all she did was bring it together into one narrative, which becomes all the more disturbing when we realise that it just might be possible. We should never look on totalitarian regimes of other times and places, stick our heads in the sand and say to ourselves “well that was terrible, but it could never happen here” (‘here’ meaning the 21st century Western world). These things don’t happen overnight, they creep up on you. Rights and freedoms are not static and permanent, but fluctuating and often fleeting. A right once given can just as easily be taken away. There are still swathes of America who would prefer to see women as two-legged incubators rather than fully-fledged humans in their own right. That’s why it was hard not to watch with a cold chill running down your spine as white, male, southern lawmakers and politicians stripped back women’s reproductive rights with the full blessing of the American President- who will, thankfully, be replaced in office in three days’ time.
And who could not watch on in horror as the Capitol was desecrated? Not coincidentally, the coup which allowed the Republic of Gilead to take hold, which takes place temporally before the start of the Handmaid’s Tale, also involved a siege of the Capitol. I’m not even American, but the resonance was impossible to ignore.
In short, Attwood has held a mirror up to 21st century society with a book first contemplated in 1981 and published in 1985, and its gripping 2019 conclusion. She is a sage of our times, and what we see there makes for uncomfortable reading. I can only compare it to the creepy, sanguine accuracy of Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror.