I have avoided detailed spoilers but I do give some indications of the overall storyline – so please don’t read this if you don’t want to know anything at all about how that develops.
I finished reading the latest Margaret Atwood yesterday – the long awaited follow up to The Handmaid’s Tale, which I first read in the late eighties. Back then it was a shocking glimpse of an unbelievable dystopian future. We knew it was based on reality – Atwood told us that everything she included had actually happened in some time or place. But although we had occasional glimpses that the oppression of women based on their sex might not have gone away, we did (I think) mostly believe in progress. Things were getting better, and they would continue to get better.
That naivety is now long gone, and there’s a growing realisation that our rights – women’s rights, gay rights, human rights – will always be under attack and will always have to be fought for.
When we were all glued to the first series of The Handmaid’s Tale on our TV screens, it was with a sense that the dystopia was already here. Soon we began to see women in the distinctive red robes and white wing headdresses of the Handmaids at protests around the world – starting in America but also including Argentina, Poland, Canada, Ireland and the UK.
I watched every episode of the second and third series and was beginning to feel that the everyday cruelty depicted in Gilead was too uncomfortably close to the everyday cruelty we see all around us. The rising levels of violence against women in our society, the increase in domestic violence murders, the decrease in rape prosecutions and convictions.
It seems that the more women speak up against the ways we are treated, the worse it gets. Funny, that.
Still, in the original novel and the new follow-up, what sets Atwood’s fictions apart is the moral complexity. It’s nuanced, not simple.
To be fair to the TV adaptations that comes through all too clearly at times. When we see the Handmaids encouraged to denounce and punish each other, we cannot help but know that we too would become complicit in such outrages if our survival was at stake. While we rejoice in June’s occasional wins against the regime, we are aware also of the cost to her humanity.
The Testaments picks up the story some fifteen years after the events in The Handmaid’s Tale. It tells us much more about the resistence to Gilead, from within and without. There are some familiar characters here – young and old. The story is about the beginning of the end of Gilead, and how that fall happens – so yes, there’s something to rejoice in.
There’s an element of fable to it still, with the young and idealistic up against the old, who are corrupted by power.
We leave Gilead with the sense that our hope, like theirs, lies with young people – forgetting that we once were young and idealistic too.
Oh, I did see, I thought, one place where Atwood did a nifty bit of reverse engineering to accommodate some scenes from the second TV series.
Yet by setting it fifteen years later, and then adding in an even later academic conference at the very end about the fall of Gilead in the dim and distant past, it seems that she has laid claim to her ownership of the story, and that the TV series had best stay within the lines she has drawn.
I hope they do!