In the 34 years since its publication, Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale” has become a literary and political juggernaut.
The dystopian novel — depicting a theocratic regime headquartered in Cambridge — has been translated into more than 40 languages and made into a film, a ballet, an opera, a television series, and a graphic novel. And around the globe, the handmaids’ red dresses and white bonnets can be seen donned by protesters at demonstrations against forced-birth and other regressive legislation around the world (along with signs that read “Make Margaret Atwood fiction again!”).
On Sept. 10, the sequel arrives. “The Testaments” picks up 15 years after “The Handmaid’s Tale” ends. It turns out that not only were a multitude of readers wondering what happened after the conclusion of the original novel, but, happily enough, so was Atwood.
“I only ever write novels about things that I don’t know,” she says via phone. “When I first started ‘The Testaments,’ things had changed: For a while, we were going away from ‘The Handmaid’s Tale,’ but now we’re going towards it. In real life. And in real life, totalitarianisms don’t last forever, but they end in different ways. We were told in ‘Handmaid’s Tale’ that Gilead ended, but we weren’t told how. I was interested in the how: I wanted to explore the possibilities of how it might end — or how it might have begun to end.”
The narrative of “The Testaments” — as powerful, revealing, and engaging as that of “Handmaid’s Tale” — is shared by three women: Lydia, the formidable Aunt, well-known from both the earlier novel and the TV series; Daisy, a headstrong young woman living in Toronto; and Agnes, the daughter of a Commander, destined to become the wife of another Commander.
Through Lydia’s tale we gain new insights into the immediate aftermath of the Sons of Jacob coup, including Lydia’s arrest and introduction into Gilead’s hierarchical structure. Through Daisy’s eyes, we observe Gilead from the vantage of a woman in a free country, her experiences with protests, resistance fighters, and her dawning awareness of the plight of immigrants and refugees: “I’d looked at them but I hadn’t really seen them. I hadn’t considered what it was like to leave a place you knew, and lose everything, and travel into the unknown. How hollow and dark that must feel, except for maybe the little glimmer of hope that had allowed you to take such a chance.”
And, in Cambridge, Agnes is a living, breathing, chilling reminder of the depth and breadth of knowledge that can disappear within a generation. She’s doesn’t know what a library is, or a map, or Latin. In Agnes, the indoctrination of the Republic of Gilead appears to be fully encapsulated, its puritanical roots thrown into sharp relief: “. . . best friends led to whispering and plotting and keeping secrets, and plotting and secrets led to disobedience to God, and disobedience led to rebellion, and girls who were rebellious became women who were rebellious, and a rebellious woman was even worse than a rebellious man because rebellious men became traitors but rebellious women became adulteresses.”
Through “The Testaments,” we gain access to Bloodlines Genealogical Archives that the Aunts maintain, a role that gives them enormous power. And we meet the Pearl Girls who, before becoming Aunts, evangelize abroad: “. . . other religions had missionaries,” Lydia tells us, “so why not ours? And other missionaries had produced converts, so why not ours? And other missionaries had gathered information used in espionage, so why not ours?”
“I got pretty interested in double agents, and people in resistance movements of various kinds,” says Atwood. (Indeed, the acknowledgments of “The Testaments” include thanks “to the several Second World War resistance members from France, Poland, and the Netherlands whom I have known over the years.”) “A book came out after I finished this one which is very pertinent, ‘The Spy and the Traitor.’ One of them was a USSR intelligence officer who was actually working for the British, and the other one was an American intelligence officer who was actually working for the Russians. The second one was doing it for the money, the first one was doing it because he no longer agreed with the regime. And they’re both possible.”
The evocative details of “The Testaments” stem from real life: A progressive school in Toronto is named for American-Canadian artist Florence Wyle; the Aunts share refreshments at the Schlafly Café; a band of freedom fighters take their name from the Spanish Civil War’s Abraham Lincoln Brigade; and a schooner, the Nellie J. Banks, used to smuggle people along the Underground Femaleroad from Gilead into Canada, shares the name of an early-20th-century rum-runner.
Incorporating those references is enjoyable, notes Atwood, but they have to be the right fit. “The Nellie J. Banks was fun because you get into its history,” she says. “But it also signals that the entire coast of Maine has always been a fertile ground for smugglers of all kinds, both to and fro. Bangor was a way station on the Underground Railroad, and some of the smuggling of people into Canada out of slavery was done by ships. So that was appropriate.”
Atwood is a breath of no-nonsense, compassionate, finger-on-the-pulse fresh air, whether she’s discussing her work or the world at large. Days prior to our chat, she had read about the preparations that Boston is making due to rising sea levels. “Because of its flatness and its landfill it’s going to be particularly susceptible,” says Atwood. “Boston is on the frontlines of the climate crisis.”
And dystopias aside, throughout our conversation, Atwood exudes a spirited, practical optimism.
“It’s true to say,” she acknowledges, “that the decisions that we make now are going to have much more of an impact than the decisions made, say, 500 years ago. Those were pretty local. The ones we are making now have to be seen in a global context because now everything is global. The climate crisis is a global crisis: Everything is connected to the ground and the sea. Kill the ocean, you stop breathing: That’s the short form. Too many fires and floods, and there isn’t going to be any agriculture.”
Then Atwood pauses for a beat, stressing a tangible call to action: “Smarten up, people!”
Daneet Steffens is a journalist and book critic. Follow her on Twitter @daneetsteffens.