Fool Me Twice: How Margaret Atwood’s long-awaited sequel took my breath away.
Fool Me Twice:
How Margaret Atwood’s long-awaited sequel took my breath away.
By Kristy Nicolle
We all know that many books, especially those that come to us from well-known authors such as Margaret Atwood can sometimes be fairly overhyped. It’s not surprising, I mean, Atwood is considered a literary giant in many regards, with legions of loyal and passionate readers who have high standards when it comes to what they expect from both her work and her as a figurehead. So, imagine my surprise when recently, Atwood, once again, firmly cemented herself in my mind as an absolute author hero.
She managed to pull off something that many authors fail at dismally- and that, my bookish friends, is producing a worthy sequel to a novel that changed literary history for both its genre. Not only that, but The Handmaid’s Tale, let’s not forget, was released almost thirty-five years ago. (What the hell, I mean 1985 was over a third of a century ago? I feel old!)
Anyway, enough of my rambling, let's dive into this novel and see exactly what made it worthy of its wildly successful predecessor.
Margaret Atwood- The Handmaid’s Tale and The Testaments
I won’t lie, when I heard the news that Atwood was publishing a sequel to her 1985 dystopian classic, The Handmaid’s Tale, I was ecstatic. I studied this novel in both A-Level Study, and at University, and for me, it was THE novel that made me fall in love with Dystopian Fiction, especially that with feminine undertones. I pre-ordered my copy almost immediately, and the day it turned up I had absolutely no trouble getting myself up and out of bed, which is a small miracle for someone like me who suffers from chronic pain.
Anyway, I’d seen a lot of coverage about this book by various book bloggers, and the initial reviews were mixed. Some people hated it and said that the book added nothing to the original. Some people absolutely loved it and said it was the best thing since sliced bread. I was nervous, I’ll admit. When an author who has written one of your favourite books of all time goes in for another smack at it 34 years later, there’s always the chance that they would have been better leaving well enough alone. I have felt this way with lots of series, whereby sequels and consequent novels in the running order have really taken the shine off my initial infatuation with the story.
So yes, I was nervous.
Another facet to the success or failure of this novel, in particular, can also not be ignored, and that is Hulu’s adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale for television which is now in its third season. For me, I was wondering how the hell Atwood was going to come at the sequel with this in mind. Was she going to include the storylines we had been introduced to in the TV series, which moves on far further than the original novel’s plot? Would she completely ignore the series and do something new and unexpected? Would she pick up right where the first book left off?
Admittedly, I hadn’t read the blurb, which I never do with one click books, especially long-awaited and highly anticipated ones like this. I think this is because I like to be surprised and caught off guard, and so I don’t go in with any prior expectations, but anyway, I divulge…
Anyway, I began reading and finished The Testaments in a day. It was amazing. Atwood delivered, and one of the biggest compliments I think I could give her is that I honestly feel like the series wouldn’t have been complete without this addition now I’ve read it.
What made it so special as a sequel?
For one thing, the fact that Atwood decided to merge the storylines of The Handmaid’s Tale as an original novel, and the newer television series was a stroke of genius and paid off. It didn’t alienate new readers while allowing a deep understanding and reward for those who had stuck with the story for so long and across multiple mediums. The multi-faceted POV of this book was cleverly done too, with each of the three narrators giving us a different viewpoint, but also enclosing the narrative to focalise on the fate of Offred/June, the narrator, and protagonist of both the novel and television series. It was wonderful to discover her fate, and also that of the two daughters we have become so invested in during the novel, and television series. I for one, was especially ecstatic that we got to learn more about the fate of Baby Nicole, which as of the end of the third series, is still an enormous question mark leaving the reader wondering if she’ll forever escape the clutches of Gilead, or be returned to grow up with the same fate as her birth mother.
I also thought it was particularly interesting to learn about the background of Aunt Lydia, who is so often seen as one of the villains of The Handmaid’s Tale but comes out as a long-suffering anti-hero in The Testaments. I loved getting more information on The Aunts from both her perspective, and then later Agnes’, and the fact that Aunt Lydia’s position allows you to really get an idea about the level of corruption that cannot come from the narrative of a single bewildered Handmaid was a great way of exploring Gilead’s culture and decomposition in more depth.
Agnes Jemima, who is revealed for those of us who have followed the television show to its most recent episode as June’s biological daughter, Hannah, demonstrates how the female children of Gilead are in no way better off than the handmaids. Married to men they didn’t choose, for status instead of love, the girls are terrorised about sex from a young age by The Aunts, being told horror stories to keep them pure for their wedding nights. We also discover the depth of control the Gilead regime holds over their education, which consists not only of these little anti-sex anecdotes, but the fact that the girls are prepared only to be wives, and not permitted to read or write.
This really highlights the importance of education in sustaining a dystopian regime, and I think that Atwood was very aware that The Aunts in this situation sometimes went overboard with their warnings, leaving them to backfire when young women would rather have become Aunts living lives of celibacy than being forced to marry in their early teens. She employs this tactic to highlight how the warnings of religious doctrine can actually cause more trauma and fear than intended, rendering the subjects inevitably useless for the enforcer’s intent.
Later on in the novel, Agnes is also exposed to be basically inept in the world outside of Gilead’s borders, as when working to escape with her half-sister ‘Jade’ has little fortitude and stamina against the vicious bite of the natural world or how people outside of Gilead operate. It is ironic as well, because Jade, having come from Canada, is also inept inside Gilead’s walls, meaning that neither one nor the other of these two girls could have succeeded in an escape without the other.
Agnes’ indoctrination is revealed throughout the novel to be clear to everyone other than herself, which makes the device employed by Atwood here all the more compelling as we see her diligence to God through both Aunt Lydia, who uses religion as a vehicle to reach her own ends, and Jade who has been raised without any religion at all.
Jade, however, also encapsulates one of the prominent themes in this novel, which is the fluidity with which we identify ourselves in the modern-day. The identity of Gilead’s female residents applies only to their relationships to other people. Handmaid, Aunt, Wife etc… whereas Jade/Daisy/Baby Nicole, goes through several rather quick identity changes and finds the rigidity with which she has to embrace her final Gilead persona to be stifling rather fast compared to the ease with which she abandoned her prior names and identities.
Does this speak then to the nature of how the modern-day woman really does become a whole host of identities in the course of her life, and master as switching from one to another, and how by designating women to one role only we are depriving them, and society, of their greater potential?
I think one of the things that made this sequel especially poignant for me, was the fact that we do finally see the two girls, Agnes and Jade (Baby Nicole) back with their biological mother, Offred, in the end. (Though she is never explicitly named, we can imply from what we know from the prior novel and television adaptation.) This small part of the novel gave that which is undeniably an acute dystopian tale what I have often thought impossible for a story in this genre, which is a relatively happy ending.
To conclude, I think its fairly obvious that I absolutely adored this novel, but what I adored even more was how the author took her original message from 1985 and resurrected it in a time where certain parts of the world are said to be crawling dangerously close to such stringent feminine rights. As relevant now as it was then, Atwood opens our eyes through a multi-faceted story and shows us the terrifying future that lies in wait if women’s rights are not respected, preserved, and fought for.
So… what are you waiting for? Go and pick up a copy… and if you haven’t read the original, again… what are you waiting for?