By Margaret Atwood
“Dear Readers: Everything you’ve ever asked me about Gilead and its inner workings is the inspiration for this book. Well, almost everything! The other inspiration is the world we’ve been living in.”
Like most devoted Atwoodians, i.e. those of us who admired the author’s work long before MGM/Hulu adapted her dystopian novel for TV, I have been increasingly edgy in the weeks leading up to the publication of The Testaments – her much-anticipated sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale. I worried she may have set herself a near impossible task and feared the story would be perceived as contrived. Might this most longed-for of duologies fall short of expectations and damage her not inconsiderable reputation? In addition to my excitement at the coming of a new novel from the high priestess of prophetic literary fiction, I openly admit to having felt anxiety on her behalf.
How ridiculous my apprehension now seems. I needn’t have worried because Margaret Atwood is novelistic giant who rises to every undertaking. Her return to the theocratic regime of the Republic of Gilead some fifteen years after the tantalisingly open-ended conclusion of her seminal masterpiece is every bit as terrifying as the original (in some ways, more so), yet leaves one with hope for the future.
“Our time together is about to begin, my reader. Possibly you will view these pages of mine as a fragile treasure box, to be opened with the utmost care. Possibly you will tear them apart, or burn them: that often happens with words.”
There are signs Gilead is decaying from within. The story is told alternately by three female characters, one of whom played a significant role in The Handmaid’s Tale – a novel first published in 1985 at a time when none of us could have predicted it would become a point of reference in the age of Trump.
I have no intention of divulging the plot, other than to share the basic details supplied by Atwood herself prior to publication. I resorted to extreme measures in order not to stumble upon key elements of the text prior to my first reading, so it seems only fair that I quell my desire to analyse every shrewd phrase, chilling revelation and hairpin bend of the narrative.
Suffice it to say, I was impressed. From its neon green cover image of a bonnet-clad handmaid to its tension-building tale of internal subterfuge, I was enthralled from beginning to end. Atwood has succeeded in creating a witty and immersive fable of a dehumanizing, patriarchal society, which is a clever hybrid of speculative fiction and spy thriller.
Margaret Atwood’s brilliance as a storyteller is undiminished. She remains a zeitgeist through ‘interesting times’.
“History does not repeat itself, but it rhymes.”