The long-awaited sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale, The Testaments, was published in September and, as you might expect, there has been a storm of approval for the novel since.
There has been renewed interest in The Handmaid’s Tale in recent years, arguably in response to Donald Trump’s presidency and the television adaptation of the book which followed. The narrative of Atwood’s original novel has become central to contemporary protests against restrictions on reproductive rights, with the red habit of the handmaid becoming a feminist symbol of protest that is uniting women across the globe. Women dress up as handmaids to draw explicit parallels between the actions of Gilead’s fictional government and the actions of various countries, a recent example being the presence of the red habit at marches in the US to protest the defunding of Planned Parenthood and mass closures of abortion clinics. Even Conservative commentators have been talking about it, although their attitude is more ‘calm down, it’s not like you live in Gilead!’, as if we should be grateful that we are not in The Handmaid’s Tale. But The Testaments shouldn’t be shrugged off as publishers looking for quick money.
Told from three perspectives, its scope moves into Canada, into Gilead’s schools, and into the elite political circles only glimpsed at in Atwood’s seminal novel. Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of the book is Aunt Lydia’s narrative. What will we do in order to survive, and how steady are our morals when survival is threatened, are the novel’s biggest questions. These issues are explored to sickening effect as we watch Aunt Lydia balance safety and power. Presented as frighteningly human, we watch as she accepts ‘necessary’ evils, allowing murder to go unpunished for her own security, only to then act in ways we would deem heroic if it were anyone else. She works the system – a system she helped set up – and Atwood works us, forcing us to question our own integrity; how purely would we act when knowledge (divulging it and withholding it) is power and to lose any of this power would mean death?
The intensity and horror found in The Handmaid’s Tale isn’t the same here, largely because the story is not confined to a sole narrator – something that leaves you feeling almost as trapped as June was – and because much more happens. The initial intrigue is philosophical rather than emotional, and the pace is that of a thriller, but that doesn’t mean the glimpsed experiences of Gilead’s women are any less harrowing: my own chest tried to disappear as a young girl described how a man’s hand ‘sat there on my breast like a large hot crab,’ knowing it would be more dangerous to tell someone of his actions than it would be to try and stop him.
As lots of commentators have said, this novel is extremely timely. Western society is undergoing a resurgence of a hard right: a self-professed sexual harasser holds one of the most powerful titles in the world (and looks set to enjoy this for several more years), whilst nationalism and hate crime continue to rise in the UK. Bodily autonomy is not just under threat in America – it is being stolen right now. The very fact that a sequel to such a nightmarish novel seems so relevant should make us quake. One particular moment in the novel brought this reality into ugly focus for me: there was what Gilead would call a difficult birth, and as one narrator bluntly says, ‘the truth was that they’d cut Crystal open to get the baby out, and they’d killed her by doing that.’
Until extremely recently, women in Northern Ireland were refused abortions in near all circumstances – even when to continue a pregnancy will cause great health risks for the mother – a scenario chillingly like that of Crystal. But while legal abortion in Northen Ireland is an incredible victory, it will take time for attitudes to change. Practical access is likely to still be difficult, and harassment and intimidation of those attempting to exercise their rights commonplace. Push-back from the right is guaranteed: Northern Ireland’s largest anti-choice campaign, ‘Precious Life’, a name with a strong Gileadian ring to it, has already branded this preliminary move towards meeting the UK’s human rights commitments as ‘barbaric’. People who can give birth can be, and still are, treated as incubators, treated as the ‘two-legged wombs’ Atwood wrote of more than 30 years ago.
Atwood’s return to Gilead is a piercing novel and a testament to her talent as an author, but it is also a sobering reminder of how far from secure our basic human rights are. However, as recent events in Northern Ireland have proven, resistance works. Atwood, in The Testaments, reminds us to keep this resistance.
[Eleanor Campanile – she/her]