I read The Handmaid’s Tale back in 1997, before I started this blog. I can remember turning the last page and cursing that everything was left so indeterminate. Well, 36 years later, we finally have closure! Of course, in between there has been the enormously successful HULU series which started in 2017, and the red cloaks and white bonnets have been incorporated into protest iconography, especially in response to abortion rights and the Trump presidency.
The Testaments is told in alternating chapters, that are labelled either ‘The Ardua Hall Holograph’ or ‘Transcript of Witness Testimony 369A or 369B’. The Holograph is addressed to an unknown reader, by a writer who does not know if it will ever be read. She introduces herself to us in the second segment:
I am well aware of how you must be judging me, my reader; if that is, my reputation has preceded me and you have deciphered who I am, or was. In my own present day I am a legend, alive but more than alive, dead but more than dead…. I’m a bugaboo used by the Marthas to frighten small children – If you don’t behave yourself, Aunt Lydia will come and get you!p.32
And so we meet Aunt Lydia again, indelibly cast in my mind as the actress Anne Dowd. We learn more about the Aunts, who now need to recruit young missionaries to cross over into Canada to entice young women across to Gilead. As one of the four ‘founding’ Aunts, Aunt Lydia has power, although the founding Aunts have decided to publicly defer to the Commanders. In the pre-Gilead world, Aunt Lydia was originally a Judge- which is rather uncanny with the confirmation of Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court, a member of ‘People of Praise’ group that used to have a religious rank ‘handmaid’. (This article explains that another Catholic charismatic group ‘People of Hope’ who also used the term ‘handmaid’ may have influenced Atwood’s original book). Through Aunt Lydia’s book, conveyed through Holograph, we learn what her experience was as Gilead became a Theocracy, how and why she became an Aunt, and how Gilead is sustained through the Aunts’ work.
It takes a little while to work out the Witness Testimonies. It becomes clear that there are two witnesses, although their narrative voices are very (and too) similar. I won’t say how they fit into the story, but I became increasingly apprehensive about why they were designated ‘Witness Testimonies’. The ending of the book very much echoed the epilogue of the original Handmaid’s Tale.
The visual imagery and architecture of the HULU Handmaid’s Tale streamed series is so striking that this book seemed particularly devoid of description. I can’t remember whether that was the case for the original Handmaid’s Tale book or not. Atwood has worked as consulting producer on the series, and perhaps she – like us – has internalized the ‘look’ of Gilead so much that there is no need to spell it out.
I bought the hardcover version, which is really beautiful. It has eschewed the red and white of the handmaid’s uniform for dark blue, bright green and white. The endpapers (is that the right word? the inside of the cover) are a clever visual trick that switches between handmaid and girl with a ponytail. It made me remember how much I enjoy reading a real, hard-cover, printed book.
I finished the original The Handmaid’s Tale thinking “NOW what happens??” Margaret Atwood doesn’t leave her readers so unsatisfied this time – you know exactly what happened. And she has left plenty of space for Series 4, Series 5…as many Series as they want.
This book was awarded the 2019 Booker Prize, even before it was released here in Australia. I don’t know whether it really deserved it in its own right as a literary work, as distinct from a cultural phenomenon. It’s well constructed and satisfying but the writing is rather pedestrian, although that may well reflect the paucity of intellectual life in Gilead and post-Second-Civil-War Canada. I can’t help thinking that it received the Booker through gratitude that there finally was a sequel, and for the perspicacity that created a Gilead that we have more cause to fear now than in 1985.
My rating: 8.5 /10
Sourced from: purchased as a pre-lockdown indulgence.