Nothing in the sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale feels dystopian as Margaret Atwood seamlessly picks up the threads 35 years later
The Republic of Gilead has a distinct class system. The Aunts are the nun-like rule enforcers who puppeteer the lives of the women. The Handmaids are surrogates whose purpose is just to procreate and suffer institutionalised rape. The Marthas are the domestic help. There are Wives and Econowives. The Guardians, the Commanders, the Eyes, the Pearl Girls — each has a specific function and place in the theocratic regime.
Women in Gilead are not taught to read and write. The schools they go to teach them embroidery and instill in them discipline and etiquette expected of them as Wives. Geography is an alien concept, for they know not how far Gilead extends and where its boundaries lie. Illiteracy being the norm, shops do not have names, but pictures depicting what they offer — teeth for a dentist, fish or a boot. Death by firing squad, inhuman jails, dry bread and turnip soup for meals…
History does not repeat itself, writes Margaret Atwood in The Testaments, but it rhymes. Deep rooted in various societies, denying women equal opportunity, including education, continues till this day. “Forbidden things are open to the imagination. That was why Eve ate the Apple of Knowledge…too much imagination,” is one of the warnings given by the Aunts in the book. The class system finds its genesis in the beginning of civilisations. And who does not know about the holocaust and similar violation of basic human rights happening even as you read this — the ISIS, North Korea, Syria, Afghanistan, Myanmar, the Mexico-US borders…
Frequently labelled as dystopian, Atwood has repeatedly insisted that her writings are nothing but extrapolations of what we have seen in the past and are currently living through. Innumerable parallels have been drawn between a Gilead that Atwood writes about and America under Trump. Be it the unnerving inventions from Oryx and Crake or the calamities of The Year of the Flood, there is nothing we do not have the possibility of experiencing. So even as a Greta Thunberg cries hoarse at a UN convention, challenging political leaders with a “how dare you”, there are no immediate answers to apocalyptic forces like climate change, or even the will to find any. But Atwood is hopeful. At least in her novel, as The Testaments ends with the crumbling of Gilead.
The book is set in a time 15 years after Offred boards the van in The Handmaid’s Tale. Her daughter Agnes is a teenager, growing up in the home of a Commander and his wife Tabitha, who Agnes thinks of as her biological mother. She is one of the three voices telling the story of Gilead. The other two are Aunt Lydia — a survivor who has engineered to be in a position of power and who thinks nothing of manipulating people to achieve her ends — and Daisy, who is Agnes’ half sister and a resident of Canada. Aunt Lydia has a plan to bring down Gilead, and Daisy and Agnes become her tools to bring it to fruition. Thus begins a thriller-like sequence of events, which culminates in the girls escaping to safety with incriminating documents to reveal the darkest of Gilead’s secrets to the rest of the world. A daring escape, a rough ride in a dinghy across a pitch-dark sea, the ultimate sacrifice by Agnes’ friend Becka, the smooth crushing of Aunt Lydia’s enemies — build up a thrilling crescendo.
For all the darkness and despair of The Handmaid’s Tale, The Testaments offers hope and a future, even if Atwood furnishes fictional and rather simple answers in a movie-like finish. Unfortunately, humankind’s problems are not so simplistic. One might say dystopian writing over the years has clearly not served its cautionary purpose, even if much of it is horribly coming true. And, the writers certainly have not been found lacking.
I don’t really have a throne, Atwood tweeted in response to images of her seated like a queen on a recent cover of Time magazine. But for an author who shows a mirror to society, and who tells it like it is, she deserves one.