I don’t often get swept up in the excitement over new book releases, especially in fiction, but so many people couldn’t resist pre-ordering Margaret Atwood’s sequel to “The Handmaid’s Tale”, “The Testaments” that I got into the whole thing, too. It’s publication day today and I’m eagerly awaiting, etc., but even though I a) am self-employed and can arrange my work to an extent, b) read fast, I won’t have a review out before Thursday at the earliest. However, having believed myself not to have re-read “The Handmaid’s Tale” for a while, here’s my review of my re-read of my dear and battered old copy (complete with post-it note inside: “Liz’s, please return” AND “Liz Broomfield English II” in faded ink inside the front cover!

Margaret Atwood – “The Handmaid’s Tale”


Here’s a confession. I was convinced I had re-read this before, between my first reading aged 18 and my reading now, aged 47. But if I had, it certainly hasn’t been during the lifetime of this blog, or the book review journals that stretch back to 2007. I remembered the central premise, the idea, but not really many of the scenes. So maybe I hadn’t.

I remember when I first read it and why. I was taking Peggy Reynolds’ Women and Literature in the 20th Century course at university, an optional D period course in my second year. I have always had it rather fatally mixed up with Angela Carter’s “The Passion of New Eve” (which I’ve tried and failed to re-read recently: too MUCH!) and of course the landscapes of both would mesh together. I can only assume we had a week on dystopias.

Anyway, my goodness, if I’ve only read it at 18 and now, what a gulf separates those two reads. I knew so little of the world, its ways and its troubles then, though we were in the middle of the AIDS crisis and starting the First Gulf War. Then, if I’d imagined myself into the book, I’d have thought of arranged marriages or assignment to a sterile wife and her Commander husband to try to produce a child. Now, childless at 47 (although in a first marriage, white and of Christian birth, not as bad off as some), where would I be in that book? I dread to think.

We probably all know the premise – in a warring and fragile state, the birth-rate has dropped and women such as our heroine, ‘Offred’ are assigned to live with married couples and copulate coldly with the husband, hoping to produce a baby. She remembers the time before, her husband and daughter (and pet: oh dear. Be careful at Chapter 30), and their attempted escape from the increasing privations of the regime, as women are slowly denied money, jobs, freedom, and she hopes there is an underground force at work, resisting. She remembers the wonderful, testing Moira, her best friend (please please please let Moira pop up in the new book) and longs for even a few words to read. When her Commander makes an odd request, what is she to do?

It was the very small details that bothered me this time. Women have taken to the old handicrafts. Plastic has been banned and groceries are once again wrapped in paper. It’s well-known that all the details Atwood put in had happened somewhere in the world (by 1985!!!) and those just seemed too familiar. The rounding up and sending away of first the “Children of Ham” and Jewish people and then the concentration on anyone who wasn’t a white Christian in a first marriage screamed at me of that poem “First they came for …”

A powerful and of course sublimely well-written book. Unlike some modern dystopias, the violence is usually off-screen. I love the epilogue featuring a conference paper on the reliability or not of the narrative – something I’d forgotten.

I can’t wait to read “The Testaments” and can only hope it comes up to the hype.

Have you re-read “The Handmaid’s Tale” recently and are you waiting by the door for the new one to drop through?