Recommended, Nay Required, Reading

I do not like to get political here on my blog, though the argument can be made, as Orwell did, that all writing is political. Yet, a news alert about the Supreme Court’s leaning to strike down Roe vs. Wade impels me to recommend a couple of novels set in a United States, or subsection thereof, where that same has happened.

This 2011 novel by Hillary Jordan follows the story of Hannah, a woman convicted of murder for having had an abortion, who is not incarcerated, but rather “chromed,” that is her skin is genetically dyed red to announce her crime to all around while she tries to survive both the stigma and the emotional and mental strain her world, her actions, and her beliefs put on her. Well written and engrossing, this novel, to paraphrase This is Spinal Tap, goes to 11. I read it when it first came out, and I’m still thinking about it. If I had a class set, I’d teach it alongside The Scarlet Letter.

If you haven’t heard about The Handmaid’s Tale, well, then you’re probably not reading this blog either. I’ll admit that I haven’t watched the series, but I read the book a few years ago after hearing rave upon rave from several English teacher friends. Several claim it to be their favorite book. I’ll admit that I didn’t “LOVE” it as I’ve heard so many others speak of it, but that is because it horrified me. Which it is what it should do. The ease with which the people of Gilead accepted the total subjugation of women is the most terrifying thing I’ve ever read. Yet Atwood, like Jordan, is not didactic; they both tell stories that tell us something about ourselves, and these are things we don’t want to know, but hopefully, if we can confront the ugly in fiction, we can avoid or at least ameliorate it in real life. (For a bonus, check out my 2019 review of The Testaments, Atwood’s sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale.)

Book Review: The Testaments

The TestamentsDare I say I liked it even better than The Handmaid’s Tale? Of course this is with the stipulation that this would not be the case if I had not read The Handmaid’s Tale first. The former completely horrified me, as it should. Reading The Testaments, I was naturally more prepared for the misogynistic world of Gilead. In addition, the narrative voices of Aunt Lydia, Agnes, and, well to avoid spoilers I won’t name the other narrator, are closer, more intimate and more educated than that of Offred. The narrative voice of The Handmaid’s Tale keeps the reader at arm’s length. The Testaments is more conspiratorial. I was drawn in immediately and read more quickly. I didn’t want to put it down.

The tale is told, as indicated above, from three perspectives: one has been brought up in Gilead; one has been brought up outside of Gilead; and one experienced the revolution that destroyed the USA and created Gilead. These three characters converge bringing their sometimes clashing viewpoints and ideologies together. The result is a broader picture of the world in which Gilead exists. And that world is still frightening, not only in Gilead’s twisted theocracy but also in the reaction of the wider world to it.

Finally, as with The Handmaid’s Tale, the book ends with a partial transcript of a scholarly symposium on Gileadean studies discussing the discovery of the testaments of these various characters (hence the title!). Dare I hope that there is a hint therein of another possible volume in the future?

A sequel to a much loved book that has been taught in countless classrooms, that resonates so much in today’s world that Hulu has turned it into a much loved series is a tinderbox of a task. So much is expected and so much has already been imagined in the minds of the readers. If the result were redundant or poorly executed, the backlash could have been severe, but Margaret Atwood is all the writer we expect her to be and more. She has delivered a novel entirely worthy of its predecessor and its fans. Praise be.