Margaret Atwood’s Long-Awaited Handmaid’s Tale Sequel is a Balm in Gilead
Film adaptations of favorite books are often a letdown. And sometimes, even the book itself falls short on subsequent rereads.
Moss’ character June narrates the book, sticking very close to the grand house in which she’s an unwilling servant, forced to participate in monthly rape ceremonies whose goal is a pregnancy she’ll carry to term on behalf of her household heads, Commander Waterford and his wife. Like all the fertile handmaids, the state has issued her a concealing uniform and bonnet, along with a new name, Offred, distilled from her Commander’s first name.
Readers pray for her to make a successful break for it, but Atwood cuts the narrative’s cord at the end, leaving them to wonder what became of June/Offred.
The Hulu series expanded both the handmaid’s world and her story, fleshing out the totalitarian patriarchal theocracy, Gilead, and other locales like that of the Canadian resistance and the radioactive Colonies, where the government sends recalcitrant handmaids when not publicly hanging them.
Oh, reader, oh viewer, it doesn’t disappoint!
Fifteen Years Later
Those seeking familiar names should brace themselves. Atwood merely alludes to them, though often in tantalizingly offhanded ways.
The Testaments picks up the narrative fifteen years further along. Children grow up, corrupt regimes have a way of turning on their own, and history can shift the emphasis any way it wants to.
It’s entirely fitting that heavies who wielded so much power are now little more than footnotes, while portraits of Baby Nicole, Offred’s infant daughter, whereabouts unknown, hang in Gilead classrooms to stir up patriotic fervor and a fearful obedience in its native-born female citizens.
Viewers for whom the Season Three finale is still fresh may be surprised to learn that any native-born Gileadeans remain after Offred-cum-Ofjoseph pulled off her heart-stopping raid on the regime’s nurseries, aided by her sister handmaids and a great number of Marthas, the similarly trapped domestic laborers whose own clandestine network uses baked goods as semaphore…
But again, let us remember that 15 years have passed, and Atwood is back at the controls.
She now evenly divides narration duties among three female characters–one of Gilead’s precious pink-clad babies, now approaching her marriageable mid teens; a rebellious young girl raised on the Canada side; and fan favorite Aunt Lydia, the handmaids’ sadistic den mother.
Here, let us praise the mighty Ann Dowd. With apologies to Victoria Tennant, who played Aunt Lydia in the 1990 film adaptation, an apparent misfire that many readers instinctively avoided, I took Dowd’s voice, face and gait with me into The Testaments, beginning on the first page, when the canny old gender-war vet is assessing a statue the government has erected in her honor.
Though here, too, permit me to celebrate something that can only be accomplished on the page, where readers can pause to truly savor such things as sentence construction.
Observing the offerings left at the statue’s feet in The Testaments, Atwood-as-Lydia writes:
Eggs for fertility, oranges to suggest the fullness of pregnancy, croissants to reference the moon…
Here, Atwood deploys the comedic Rule of 3 with surgical precision. To me, it’s every bit as thrilling as a talented cinematographer’s staging of wide-scale horror in familiar municipal buildings, stadiums, and public parks.
Eggs and oranges are of a piece with the maidenly antiquity to which Gilead aspires, bringing the suggestion of fertility to somber oil paintings, wherein chaste servant girls toil in under-decorated kitchens.
But croissants, with their whiff of hipster cafe and the airport self-serve kiosk, take on an intended ridiculousness in this context, especially coming out of Aunt Lydia’s mouth.
The handmaids are not the stars of this sequel.
Auntie Take the Wheel
Instead, we learn more about the aunts–the chilling way the originals came to inhabit their position, and the grooming process for new recruits.
Like the handmaids, the freshly minted aunts must leave their former names behind. But, like nuns, the authorities allow them to choose a handle. In Gilead, they make their selection from an approved list of familiar products. I had to look up Immortelle–it’s an expensive anti-aging cream– but Maybelline activated all my pleasure centers, and I felt proud when I realized that the unfortunate Aunt Wendy, referred to in passing, late in the game, could have entered the service before the name-change rule took effect, or she could have renamed herself after a hamburger chain.
There’s joy, too, in the cringingly unimaginative names the Gilead brass confers on certain structures within the realm, from the solitary confinement of the Thank Tank to the rebels’ Underground Femaleroad. Obviously, an author of Atwood’s prodigious abilities could have easily come up with something far better, but the loathsome regime cannot. Atwood relishes the opportunity to emphasize the administration’s stupidity by dropping these clunkers amid her own nimble prose. Does Aunt Lydia share Atwood’s view of her bosses’ ineptitude? Most assuredly, but she wisely plays it close to the vest, even in the secret history she’s recording in black, then blue, ink, hidden page by page in a Catholic tome deep inside the Aunts’ heavily guarded library, a location akin the Maesters’ Citadel in Game of Thrones.
As for brand new characters, Atwood introduces some compelling Gilead-born-and-breds in The Testaments, like the lively opportunist Shumammite (those inclined to Google the odd name will be rewarded with another small gift, compliments of the author), and Becka, whose physical situation recalls the explicit trials endured by the handmaids in the first tale.
The literary fruit has been blessed under Hulu’s eye. The Lord has opened.