Somehow, describing this as the ‘long-awaited sequel’ doesn’t quite cover it. I’ve had this on preorder for MONTHS. As I’m sure you know, The Testaments is the follow up to the enormously successful, and worryingly prophetic, Handmaid’s Tale – the story of a dystopic America, where a huge swathe of the country is under the control of a totalitarian government that has removed the rights of woman to exist as individuals. (Seriously, if you’ve never heard of this book then I think you may be on the wrong blog).
The Testaments carries on a few years after the last book left off, delving deeper into the world of Gilead from the point of view of women living within it, and outside. It’s not the same literary horror story we saw in the first instalment (or indeed, the tv series), so I don’t think it carries the same shock value I remember from reading The Handmaid’s Tale, though now I get less of a sense of ‘this could happen!’ and more of a sense of ‘I think it already has.’
The writing is much lighter, with less of the literary flair we saw in June’s account of her life as a handmaid. What does come across is the hypocrisy of the entire Gilead setup, and the sense that many of the original characters (Aunt Lydia in particular) are perhaps just as much victims as the handmaids; they were just better survivors.
This one’s a resurgent classic. It was first published way back in ’86 and took its place also alongside Orwell’s 1984 as one of the most of the most chilling views of a dystopian state-run future that the literary world had ever seen. And like 1984, The Handmaid’s Tale has found a new audience, as many believe that recently drafted policies by the current US administration mean that perhaps its time has finally come.
The book is set in what I suppose you could call an Alternative Dystopian Now. Birth rates across the United States are in freefall thanks to biological and radioactive pollution, while prenatal birth defects are skyrocketing. Poverty leads to civil unrest which leads to civil war. Part of the country is effectively annexed from the rest of the nation, and within this walled state, the religious right ascends to power.
As you’d expect, the grey-haired men in charge set about dialing things back a couple of centuries: women’s rights are swept away overnight, reducing half the population to little more than property; abortion is banned; homosexuality is outlawed; and a secret police force takes to the streets to ensure that religious law is observed under pain of death. The book details this new state order from the point of view of a Handmaid; one of a large group of women forced into providing surrogate children for the elite. The Handmaid’s are seen as vital to restoring the birth rates, but at the same time they’re despised by the wives of the men they’re forced to breed with.
The genius of this book is that Atwood has set it in the now, rather than some obscure future. This makes everything seem uncomfortably familiar and does give the reader the real sense that this could actually happen – that it might actually be happening now. How would a government go about removing the rights of women almost overnight; well, according to the book, it’s actually quite easy:
Following the economic collapse of the American mid-west, Stan and Charmaine’s upwardly mobile future disintegrates within the space of a few months. They lose their jobs, their status, their home, and find themselves living in their car and rifling through trash for food while avoiding the looters and rape gangs that now roam unchecked across middle America.
Things look grim until Charmaine hears of a bizarre social experiment designed to save the United States from collapsing into anarchy. So they move to the town of Consilience which offers them careers and a pleasant suburban home – with one small catch: every second month they must give up their lives and spend thirty days in prison as corporation-owned slaves. They sign up; I mean, every second month in prison isn’t so bad, right…?