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I can’t think of any other literary novel that has had such a build-up prior to its release. Details of the story were shrouded in secrecy and its shortlisting on this year’s Booker Prize all contributed to an anticipation which culminated in a midnight release of the book this week and a live interview with Atwood that was streamed to over 1,300 cinemas around the world. I have to admit, I jumped right on board the hype train and read the novel over the course of a day. Personally, I was especially excited to see how the story would continue 15 years in the future after Offred’s final scene and discover more about Gilead’s downfall because I reread “The Handmaid’s Tale” so recently. In “The Testaments” we get a lot more about the workings of this dystopian society because it’s narrated from three different perspectives who all have unique views and access to different layers of this totalitarian state. In doing so, Atwood offers further perceptive critiques on the nature of patriarchal society and presents moving psychological insights into how people survive (or perish) within oppressive regimes. I have to say the way the central characters’ stories come together is a bit forced and the plot is somewhat predictable. Nevertheless, it’s a continuously engaging and gripping experience reading this book.

Central to the tale is Aunt Lydia who appeared in the original novel in Offred’s memories as an imposing tyrant who trains her as a handmaid. In “The Testaments” we get Lydia’s secret account that she stows in her private library describing her journey from pre-Gilead times as a left-leaning judge to her imprisonment, torture and eventual position as one of the architects of Gilead society. She’s a complex and difficult character who hoards secrets as a means of maintaining her power: “I’ve made it my business to know where the bodies are buried.” Lydia experienced a traumatic wakeup call as she witnessed a democratic American society shift to a puritanical totalitarian state: “People became frightened. Then they became angry. The absence of viable remedies. The search for someone to blame. Why did I think it would nonetheless be business as usual? 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.” Rather than perish she proved her durability as a survivor and someone willing to compromise her morals in order to persist. She also takes pleasure in her power and position when denouncing her enemies or extinguishing those she views as weak: “I judged. I pronounced the sentence.” I appreciate the way Atwood depicts Lydia as an oppressor, but someone who is nonetheless sympathetic in her desire to live no matter the cost and becomes entombed in a perilous loneliness: “Having no friends, I must make due with enemies.”

The other two narrators are much younger and were born in Gilead so have no knowledge of a world without it. But they live on opposite sides of the border. Agnes lives in a privileged family within Gilead. She’s raised as a true believer and reared to become the high class wife of a commander. Daisy lives in the neighbouring democratic state of Canada and becomes involved with anti-Gilead protests. Both these girls experience severe disruptions when their intended paths in life abruptly change due to larger events and secrets are unearthed about their true origins. While their journeys are compelling the way Atwood brings together her three narrators’ stories relies too heavily on chance and convenience. The girls also perhaps serve too neatly as optimistic perspectives in contrast to Aunt Lydia’s position of corruption and vengeance. They are innocent as Agnes explains “We’d been protected… I’m afraid we did not fully appreciate the extent to which those of Aunt Lydia’s generation had been hardened in the fire. They had a ruthlessness about them that we lacked.”

Something I found really powerful about Agnes’ story is her friendship with a girl named Becka. While the other girls in their class enthusiastically embrace the idea of marrying a commander for the privileges such a position will bestow upon them, Becka adamantly refuses to marry because of her fear of sexual contact with men. It’s clear she’s experienced some unconfessed trauma, but Agnes doesn’t feel like she can discuss this with Becka because of her fear of the associated repercussions. While “The Handmaid’s Tale” meaningfully depicted the way women hesitate to be emotionally open for fear of being denounced, “The Testaments” further develops the way in which state pressure can reinforce these silences and prevent close friendships.

Atwood on the evening of the launch of The Testaments

Atwood on the evening of the launch of The Testaments

More than the circumstances of the stories being portrayed, I probably felt more moved by the parallels between events “The Testaments” depicts and instances in the real world. Atwood has famously stated how “The Handmaid’s Tale” doesn’t portray anything which hasn’t already happened in human history and the same is true for this novel: governments “temporarily” take away citizens’ rights in a move towards totalitarianism; children are stolen from their birth parents and allocated to state-sanctioned couples; men use their positions of power to sexually abuse young females and sacred texts are wilfully misinterpreted for sinister motives. It’s all depressingly familiar and current. These universal themes about the deleterious effects of corrupt patriarchal governments reinforce the enduring power of “The Handmaid’s Tale” and show why it’s become such a well-known part of popular culture. That Atwood feels the need to further examine the machinations of such a brutal regime and the moral conundrums these societal shifts present to individuals feels prescient.

Atwood has stated that one of the reasons it’s taken her so long to write a sequel to her famous novel from 1985 is that it took a long time to decide upon a structure and choice of narrators. I can’t imagine any better trio of narrators to continue Gilead’s tale than the ones she’s chosen. But strangely I wish she’d concentrated less on building such a tightly woven plot and neat conclusions for her characters. Rather than being taken to the centre of Gilead I’d have been content to dwell in the periphery with characters whose lives have hardened from living in such a restrictive society. Part of the power of “The Handmaid’s Tale” was in the necessarily restricted view and understanding Offred had of her surroundings. It’s what heightened the horror because this experience more accurately reflects our own. This new novel will satisfy the curiosity many Atwood fans who want to know what happened next, but at the expense of that terrifying ignorance we felt dwelling in the restrictive cowl of a handmaid’s bonnet.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
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In my late teens and early adulthood I had a particular fascination with both utopian and dystopian fiction – so naturally “The Handmaid’s Tale” made an appearance on my reading list. But that was many years ago. Rereading it now as a more socially and politically aware adult I think I’m sensitive to many aspects of it that I probably wasn’t conscious of when experiencing this story for the first time. Back then I probably primarily read it as a thriller about a woman torn from her husband and child and forced to live in sexual subjugation under nightmarish circumstances. But that wasn’t the only way I connected with the story. I related to it and understood the shroud of silence Offred must maintain in order to survive. When I came out as gay in my teenager years I was explicitly instructed by my parents, teachers and school guidance counsellor not to speak about this facet of my identity with people in general. So my strongest memory of reading this novel was in the canny way Offred chose her moments to reveal her true beliefs and feelings to others rather than toe the line.

When I first read this novel I was struck by the way Atwood describes how the Republic of Gilead punishes homosexual acts with hanging and, of course, I was aware that such executions have been carried out by many oppressive regimes over time. I was struck that Offred’s lesbian friend Moira was in a particularly vulnerable position. The bitter poignancy of Offred’s eventual reunion with her in a brothel felt particularly sad. It made me consider what compromises must to be made for the sake of survival. Like Offred, I had hoped she’d become a revolutionary fighting against the regime after escaping from the government-trained Aunts. I was aware of the cost of sacrificing one’s own safety and security for the sake of a larger cause, but I still thought Moira was cowardly for not taking a stand. But reading it now I feel Moira’s pain more acutely: the deleterious effects she must have felt smothering her own values for the sake of living and the crushing hopelessness knowing an act of rebellion would be futile because it would only end with her own death.

So my reactions to reading this novel that first time were mainly centred on the way I personally related to its story. While I don’t think that’s a “wrong” way to read the novel, I’m more conscious now (as Atwood has famously and repeatedly stated) that there’s nothing in this novel that hasn’t occurred in real life within some society. It’s a point which is even emphasized at the end of the novel when the speaker presenting a lecture regarding Offred’s transcribed tale describes how the Republic of Gilead’s policies are an amalgamation of different practices and regulations from a selection of governments. But I was reminded of the real-world relevancy of the novel again recently when reading the memoir “My Past is a Foreign Country” by Zeba Talkhani because the author remarks how she didn’t consider “The Handmaid’s Tale” fiction because it felt like her reality when growing up in Saudi Arabia.

When I met Margaret Atwood on my first trip to London in 1999

When I met Margaret Atwood on my first trip to London in 1999

When reading Offred’s tale this time I thought more closely about these parallels and the realities being portrayed in the story. Certainly there’s been a lot of progress in the world since this novel was first published in 1985. But, at the same time, I think many of us have a pressing awareness how the patriarchy will always try to control and regulate women’s bodies as well as suppress any voices which pose a threat to its power structures. So it feels not only relevant but entirely apt that Atwood has written a soon-to-be-published sequel to this novel called “The Testaments”. Sadly, it feels like there’s no better time to return to the fictional world of Gilead to gain a different perspective on the current state of the world. Since I reread this novel partly as preparation for reading this forthcoming sequel I tried to pay attention to how its story might continue. The tight embargo on “The Testaments” means all we know about this second book is that it takes place fifteen years after Offred leaves for an unknown destination and that it’s narrated from the perspectives of three different women from Gilead. The imagery of the new cover includes a green smock so I wonder if one or all of these perspectives will be narrated by Marthas who are older infertile domestic servants within Gilead that only dress in green. I’m also hoping this new tale will give some more clues about Offred’s real identity since we never know her true name or what ultimately became of her.

Rereading this novel also gave me a renewed appreciation for the beauty of Atwood’s prose in her use of metaphorical language such as when Offred describes an egg or the subtly of her psychological portrayal as Offred becomes more attuned to the mechanisms behind her oppression. While I’ve always been a fan of Atwood I haven’t read much of her fiction in the past several years except her novel “Hag-Seed” which is a fascinating remix of “The Tempest”. But this rereading also reminded me how richly imaginative and wild Atwood’s fiction can get. I was also surprised how gripping I found it though I already knew the plot. Each twist and revelation in Offred’s story felt fresh because we’re so closely rooted in the tense psychological reality of her experience. It’s made me even more eager to know what happens next!

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
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When I first heard about the Hogarth Shakespeare series where established authors retell Shakespeare’s plays in novel form, the one I was most excited to read was Margaret Atwood’s remix of “The Tempest” with her book “Hag-Seed”. Here’s one of my favourite authors giving her version of one of my favourite Shakespeare plays! As Jeanette Winterson did with “The Gap of Time” and Anne Tyler with “Vinegar Girl”, the story of Atwood’s novel takes place in a contemporary setting. 

After Felix is forced to leave his job at an arts festival he's determined to take revenge on the men who orchestrated his departure, but he's also driven by the loss of his daughter Miranda. Atwood's tale even includes a production of “The Tempest” set in a men’s prison and directed Felix who is living under a pseudonym – which is highly appropriate given that Prospero is like a theatre director within the play. The novel continues making modern parallels while building to a shocking denouement. Atwood creates an ingeniously constructed story of revenge, grief and loneliness.

The novel also gives voice to prisoners from many different racial backgrounds who have their own interpretations of the play and express why it's meaningful to them. Sections of “The Tempest” are rewritten by some of the prisoners in a hip hop style like the musical 'Hamilton' using a modern sensibility and language. Many of their new lines make powerful comments about the condition of their lives “You think I'm an animal, not even a man!” or critique a corrupt, ineffective system “You earn yourself money by puttin' me in jail!” Atwood shows Shakespeare's enduring relevance and how the plays can be endlessly reinterpreted. In doing so, she also makes a meaningful statement about the importance of the arts in prisons.

The emotional core of the story is the way in which Felix mourns his daughter who died at the age of three. After he's ejected from his festival job he takes up residence in a ramshackle structure for many years and keeps Miranda's portrait by his bedside. He continues to imagine her as if she were still growing using a kind of magical thinking. Quite often their interactions aren't direct, but she always feels to him like she's just in the other room or will be back soon. The way in which Atwood describes Miranda's continuing proximity to Felix is very haunting and moving.

If the story feels very male dominated it's probably because the play is equally so, yet Atwood also includes her fascinating modern equivalent of Miranda in a low-on-her-luck dancer/actress Anne-Marie. This is a woman that Felix recruits to join in their production since none of the prisoners will agree to play a woman's part out of macho pride. Anne-Marie is a compellingly strong, intelligent and passionate individual. She gives her own interpretation of Shakespeare's character Miranda as someone definitely not passive or “draping herself over the furniture like wet spaghetti with a sign on her saying Rape Me.” Through her Atwood invokes a welcome feminist perspective to these male-dominated proceedings.

Channeling my inner Prospero

Channeling my inner Prospero

In the play, Prospero insults Caliban by calling him Hag-Seed. The prisoners take this name and re-appropriate it like the many racial invectives which have no doubt been made against them. In doing so it becomes an empowering badge of honour which they can redefine for themselves as well as staying mindful of its origin from those who wish to suppress them. Atwood's engrossing tale is very playful but comes out of a place of real anger. Like in Shakespeare's play there are political forces at play who like to shore up power. Felix and the prisoners are determined to blow this apart. In her characteristically vivid language Atwood describes how he feels “revenge is so close he can actually taste it. It tastes like steak, rare.” “Hag-Seed” is a gripping, forceful and highly imaginative way of welcoming Shakespeare into the 21st century.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesMargaret Atwood
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