A stream of women in flowing red robes and white bonnets walking in pairs at night. Only, these handmaids weren’t in Gilead, they were in London and headed to the grand launch of Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments – the long-awaited sequel to arguably her most famous book, the dystopian feminist novel The Handmaid’s Tale.
Published in 1985, The Handmaid’s Tale tells the story of a bleak future world where an absolute patriarchal regime in Gilead has replaced women’s rights completely. Women are denied independent identities, rights over their bodies and rights to their own children or lives. Instead, dressed in red cloaks and white bonnets, they must serve as handmaids – effectively surrogate mothers for high-placed government officials, allowing the use and abuse of their womb in exchange for the right to be alive.
For several years after the release of Handmaid’s Tale, much to the disappointment of fans, Atwood said she had no plans to write a sequel. But then, “history changed,” she told CBC’s The Current. “Instead of going away from Gilead, we turned around and started coming back towards Gilead.”
And that is how The Testaments was born. (Maybe the Hulu/MGM series had something to do with, though?)
Distinctive in green, black and white, a follow up from the red, black and white of the first book, The Testaments picks up from fifteen years after the first novel. Already in the run for the Man Booker Prize and the Scotiabank Giller Prize, the book revisits the dystopian republic Gilead.
The sequel is told by three narrators – all connected to Handmaid’s Offred: Her first daughter who was taken away from her before Gilead was created; her second daughter whom she is pregnant with by the end of Handmaid; and Aunt Lydia, the vicious matriarch responsible for the anti-feminist who helped indoctrinate other women with the beliefs of Gilead.
Hosted by Vintage Books at the popular Waterstones book store in London’s Piccadilly, the Monday midnight launch attracted huge crowds.
The launch itself, attended by fans and authors including Neil Gaiman and Jeanette Winterson included the reading of excerpts and a countdown to the reveal of the book. The crowd was of mostly women in their 20s and 30s – nursing acid-green mocktails and tucking into cupcakes.
“Two Pearl Girls dressed in floor-length, silvery gowns, stay steadfastly in character all night. ‘She handed me an orange,’ says one girl in the queue, bewildered but impressed, cradling the fruit like a precious jewel (and not yet knowing she held a crucial plot detail),” reported Sian Cain for The Guardian awed by the rockstar status a book attempting to dismantle the patriarchy has attained.
But in a world that is still reeling from the blows of misogyny, where women are still denied abortion rights, where the counter of violence against women keeps ticking upwards when girl children are killed, raped or married off – such fanfare is perhaps unsurprising.
Because, unlike reality, dystopia often ends with hope. In Atwood’s Handmaid Offred’s story ended abruptly, but the last chapter was a glimpse into a saner future – one where control and normalcy are restored.
And one can imagine women – scarred from the words they read simply in newspapers every day – must look forward to that hope.
However, as one Twitter user pointed out, there was a thing rather odd about the ceremony.
In the nearly 35 years since Handmaid was published, the red cloak and white bonnet have become almost a feminist symbol, a statement against the oppression of female sexual rights, for the liberation of the woman’s body.
To have grown women parade in those costumes, to use that as a marketing technique? We can’t quite say, “Praise be!”