Here we have three stories of Gilead: one from a pillar of the regime, one from a commander’s daughter who has grown up in that society, and one a voice from the outside who comes in. Atwood returns to the world she created in 1985, a world which is as relevant as ever (see my review of The Handmaid’s Tale) and she is coming back to fill in the gaps; fleshing out and expanding upon the dystopian universe that has gripped so many millions of readers.
It’s an immersive narrative, far more plot-driven than I expected and it plays out like a thriller. We know, thanks to The Handmaid’s Tale, that Gilead does eventually fall. Now we have an insight into how and why: the rotting from the inside out and the exposé of horror brought to light from someone once so integral in upholding the system.
“I’d believed all that claptrap about life, liberty, democracy, and the rights of the individual I’d soaked up at law school. These were eternal verities and we would always defend them. I’d depended on that as if on a magic charm.”
These women recount their own lived experiences – in a society where women are forbidden from learning to read and write (even certain pastimes, like the embroidery of symbols, end up being banned – they are deemed ‘dangerously close to writing’) – this is a voice for the voiceless. Aunt Lydia’s accounts were my favourite by far: a three-dimensional look at a revered and feared female leader, whose monstrous indifference and calculated power plays make for hugely compelling reading. At the same time, we have two young girls, who come to learn overwhelming truths about their identities and who will be sent on a mission that could see them lose everything.
“I walked behind her over the uneven paving: it felt spongy, as if my foot could go through it at any moment. The world was no longer solid and dependable, it was porous and deceptive. Anything could disappear. At the same time, everything I looked at was very clear. It was like one of those surrealist paintings we’d studied in school the year before. Melted clocks in the desert, solid but unreal.’
It wasn’t wholly satisfying: the novel seems almost self-satisfied in its denouement, but things are still left unsaid. There is a lot that we still don’t know about the creation, geography and population of this world, and I felt there were missed opportunities for tying in our current global preoccupations such as the climate emergency and toxicities in our environment, and how this might have contributed to the decline in fertility. It was a long novel, and I felt while some of the right questions were answered, some pressing ones were not.
Lacking somewhat the gravitas of its literary predecessor, and veering more into commercial territory with its tone and pacing, some readers will cry in dismay at its position on the Booker shortlist and will feel that Atwood should have left well enough alone. I disagree: a greater degree of accessibility when it comes to hallowed authors is not a bad thing, and I found the novel gripping, intelligently written and a worthwhile read for anyone wishing to revisit the horrifying universe Atwood has crafted so well.