It feels appropriate and a little serendipitous that I should ‘celebrate’ my subtle rebranding of this blog (we’re going to be a little less ‘all over the place’ and more ‘books’ from now on, kids) with this: The Testaments by Margaret Atwood. Holy shit do I have a treat for you.
Before we dive in, let’s do a quick recap of The Handmaid’s Tale. I first read it circa 2009 when I should have been revising for my A-levels, but naturally, I kept finding better things to do. I devoured that novel in two short days. Even now, as I type this, it’s as fresh in my mind as it was the day I read the last few words on the very last page. And that was more than 10 years ago.
The Republic of Gilead offers Offred only one function: to breed. If she deviates, she will, like dissenters, be hanged at the wall or sent out to die slowly of radiation sickness. But even a repressive state cannot obliterate desire – neither Offred’s nor that of the two men on which her future hangs.Brief synopsis from The Handmaid’s Tale
To say this book had an impact on me would be a bit of an understatement, but neither one of us has all day. It helped me to understand and appreciate just how easily our rights – not just women’s rights, by the way – could be snatched away with the flourish of a pen in a room filled with privileged men. It’s our duty to guard the freedoms so hard-won by those who came and suffered before us.
Basically, I think it’s essential reading, especially if you’re interested in:
- Speculative/dystopian fiction
- Politics and equal rights/feminism
- Totalitarian societies with a generous splash of religious fanaticism
Moving swiftly on.
The Testaments by Margaret Atwood
Genre: Dystopian fiction
Length: 432 pages
Publisher: Chatto & Windus/Vintage
Other bits: Sunday Times #1 Best Seller, shortlisted for the 2019 Booker Prize
Set some 15 years after The Handmaid’s Tale, the narrative unfolds through the stories of three very different characters living at a pivotal time during the Gileadean regime. Things aren’t as solid as they seem in the first book; everything seems to be barely held together with chewing gum. The witness testimonies of two young women are joined by a third, older voice, belonging to one of Gilead’s key founding figures: Aunt Lydia.
Dear Readers: Everything you’ve ever asked me about Gilead and its inner workings is the inspiration for this book. Well, almost everything! The other inspiration is the world we’ve been living in.Margaret Atwood
It reads ‘easy’ in the sense that the prose flows beautifully and keeps you just hungry enough to get to the next word, page, chapter, story. But there’s nothing easy about the harrowing and at time heartbreaking details of what these women had to experience, witness, or even do.
I love how we get a closer, unflinching look at Aunt Lydia, one of the founding members of Gilead who we’ve only seen through Offred’s eyes thus far. This time, instead of seeing here purely as a stoic symbol of woman-on-woman oppression, Aunt Lydia is armed with a pen and set to tell her own story. We find out how she got there and what has to happen to a person to make them do things they would never have even considered back in their normal lives.
We get a closer look at what it’s like for girls growing up in Gilead – what kind of education do they get? How are the children of handmaids treated or viewed by society? What are the rules and rituals surrounding marriage? Delving deeper into the mythology of Gilead is a fascinating ride, I’ll tell you that much. I’m not one to give you spoilers. But be prepared to be very pissed off.
The ending? I loved it. Satisfying, although I did predict some parts of the resolution along the way – that doesn’t bother me much, but I do know that’s a pet peeve for some readers. Anyway, the ending: tantalizing enough to leave you wanting more, but we get the answers we need.
It’s more important than ever that we read and share stories like this one. That we stay vigilant when it comes to the rights we’ve won and yet remain, it seems, at the mercy of another entitled white male’s signature. Take what’s happening under Trump’s presidency, with Planned Parenthood. Or my home country, Malta, where women were – until relatively recently – denied so much as the morning-after pill, called sluts, murderers, and worse for wanting a say in what happens to their bodies. This is not fiction. This is happening.
History does not repeat itself, but it rhymes.Margaret Atwood
And it’s not just about women’s rights. All our rights, no matter who you are or where you live, are about as permanent as the paper they’re printed on. Rip it up. Change a law. Add new laws. Close a clinic. Send in the military. Decide who’s allowed to read and write. Decide who can have a voice. It doesn’t happen all at once, you guys. It’s a slow burn. Before you know it, the whole house is on fire. Nolite te Bastardes Carborundorum.