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Return to Gilead – even more gripping this time around

Return to Gilead – even more gripping this time around
LONDON, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 09: Margaret Attwood at the Launch of her new book 'Testaments' in Waterstones Piccadilly on September 09, 2019 in London, England. (Photo by Eamonn M. McCormack/Getty Images)

The Testaments, Canadian author Margaret Atwood’s sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale, is a riveting and relevant read that will not disappoint fans of the first novel.

A week after Margaret Atwood’s eagerly anticipated sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale was released worldwide on 10 September, ultra-conservative US talkshow host Rush Limbaugh had the following to say on his programme about the notion that the Republican Party is waging a “war on women”:

“The Republicans have never committed a war on women. Republicans are not opposed to women. Republicans marry women. Republicans impregnate women. Republicans have children with women. Republicans date women. Republicans buy women flowers. They buy women diamond rings. They buy them cars. They buy them houses.”

This was uttered – a fifth of the way into the 21st century – without any apparent irony. Welcome to the US Republican Party in the age of Donald Trump.

The Handmaid’s Tale was first published in 1985, in the midst of a growing US conservative and Republican backlash against the rights of women and minorities, and the political, economic and social ground they had been gaining in the face of much resistance.

Much of this was cloaked in a clerical garb. The Religious Right was a rising force in US politics and was slowly exerting its influence over the Republican Party. Jerry Falwell was firing up his Moral Majority and battlelines were being drawn on “culture war” issues such as abortion and gay rights.

Science was also in the fundamentalist firing line: long before climate change denialism became the Republican mainstream, prominent evangelicals who took the Biblical creation story at face value were taking aim at evolution and its terrifying implication that their origin story was demonstrably false.

It was against this backdrop that Atwood, a writer from my native Canada, dropped her literary bombshell. The Handmaid’s Tale (as many DM readers will know) is a stark dystopian depiction of America after a fundamentalist Christian revolution has transformed the country into the theocracy of Gilead, where gays are hanged as “gender traitors” and doctors who performed abortions in the previous dispensation also face execution.

A toxic environment has rendered most women (and men, but this was not officially recognised) infertile, so the regime designates women who can fall pregnant as “handmaids” and assigns them to the homes of the elite commanders for reproduction purposes. Using Biblical justification, handmaids are subjected to a monthly rape session in a bizarre ritual involving the commanders and their infertile wives (Republicans impregnate women!).

The Handmaid’s Tale is narrated by the handmaid Offred (so-called because her commander’s first name is Fred). Offred is taken into custody by the authorities at the end of the book, her fate left to the imagination of readers.

The Testaments picks up the threat 15 years later, moving between narration provided by three different women and book-marked by a pair of historical conferences, far in the future, focused on a study of Gilead.

I don’t want to drop any spoilers here beyond saying that one of the narrators is a character from Hulu’s popular TV adaptation of the book, that Offred’s fate is revealed, and that the fate of the repressive state of Gilead hangs in the balance. (This reviewer, as a native Nova Scotian, was also amused to see a reference to deer hunting in his home province, where Atwood’s scientist father also hailed from.)

Atwood has always displayed an astonishing range of voice and the prose in The Testaments is brisker than that of its prequel and, in many ways, at least for my taste, more gripping and page-turning as it hurtles towards its surprising end.

Fans of the original novel and television series will not be disappointed.

In the age of Trump, The Testaments is as relevant as The Handmaid’s Tale was when the Religious Right – a key political base for the current occupant of the White House – was on the upswing. Indeed, conservative evangelicals, whose political obituary has been written more than once, have perhaps never been more emboldened.

On a range of issues, from Trump’s unstinting support of the hard right in Israel (whose very existence is taken as a sign of unfolding Biblical prophecy) to Supreme Court appointments that could see the overturning of a woman’s constitutional right to an abortion, conservative evangelicals are on the cusp of political victories that seemed far out of reach not so long ago.

The Testaments and its prequel also speak eloquently to a South African audience at a time when violence against women and children is becoming an epidemic and social plague.

Conservative critics of The Handmaid’s Tale point out that versions of Gilead actually exist, but in Muslim countries such as Saudi Arabia (a long-time US ally), Iran and areas still controlled by the Taliban. Such assertions are made as if Western liberals were somehow unaware that the rights of women in these theocracies are trampled upon.

Show me a feminist who praises Saudi Arabia’s treatment of women and I will show you a chauvinist pig who can sprout wings and fly. And if cultural and religious conservatives in America are so concerned about the plight of women in these societies, why are they working so hard to undermine their rights at home?

These two books stand as prophetic warnings about the twin evils of hard-right populism and theocracy in the 21st century, wherever they may be. And they are cracking good reads penned by a literary giant near the peak of her stellar career. A Noble prize is long overdue. ML

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