Warning – contains spoilers…
My relief at the fact that this is bloody good is immense. I’d disliked Oryx and Crake – and let’s not talk about The Year of the Flood – and I’d feared that she might go too far down that sort of route again. But, no. This is Gilead as we know and (love?) it. The continuing relevance of The Handmaid’s Tale is well-documented, and it’s hard to now separate the Gilead of the Hulu series from Atwood’s original concept. Atwood has worked with this in mind, it seems (her appearance as an Aunt in Series One confirmed her approval of the TV version), and it is noteworthy that some of the events of the second TV series have been incorporated into Atwood’s own Gilead narrative. We know from the start this time that at least two of the narrators have survived the regime to give testimony. Who these women are slowly becomes clear, and any fears that Offred’s distinctive voice is hard to replace prove unfounded.
We learn early on that the author of the Ardua Hall Holograph is none other than Aunt Lydia. Hearing her voice directly is a fascinating experience – she has a somewhat unexpected sense of humour. Whilst she remains a shady figure for many, a portrait on a wall in countless training schools, the reader is treated to her Machiavellian twists and turns. Aunt Lydia is a survivor, after all. Her inclusion also reminds us that this first generation of Gilead women had lives before, and old habits cannot be shaken off entirely.
This is not the case for another of Atwood’s narrators, Witness 369A, who has grown up in Gilead, remembering little of her early years before she was snatched from her birth mother as they attempted to flee. This young woman, Agnes, believes in the structures and restrictions of Gilead and she struggles to see otherwise, even when presented with the evidence of her confinement. Her inclusion is an inspired choice, her testimony a chilling reminder of how quickly a radical ideology can become a norm. Her notions of the boundaries of Gilead, both physical and political, are hazy and her sheltered upbringing makes her vulnerable to the machinations of others.
The third narrator is a Canadian teenager who becomes embroiled in the underground railroad with rebel Mayday operatives. Her part in the plot is brilliantly pleasing for those who’ve loved the TV series but was also the only point at which I doubted the credibility of the narrative. For those of you who have read this – would they really have allowed her to go back?
Gilead is now an easily imagined society. Atwood wisely shifts the focus here to specific institutions, allowing us a further insight into the mechanisms of such a world. As with the first book, we’re frequently reminded of the functionality of women’s lives, and of the potential terrors which lie behind every action. It’s an excellent conclusion – Atwood provides us with most of the answers we’ve been perhaps looking for. Unlike the TV series (I am slightly bothered by the news that there is to be a fourth series – really?), Atwood knows when to stop.