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Echoes of Gilead in the modern world

Books & Poetry

Ahead of a special Q&A cinema event this Sunday in which The Handmaid’s Tale author Margaret Atwood will talk about her new novel The Testaments, Adelaide writer Susan Mitchell considers why the books have struck such a nerve.

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The Testaments is the sequel to the dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale – a book readers around the world have been waiting to read for more than 30 years.

If you haven’t read the original book, or seen the television series or the film or the ballet or the opera based on it, then you have been living outside the world’s conversations.

The Handmaid’s Tale has sold eight million copies and been translated into more than 40 languages. In 1984, when Margaret Atwood sat down to write it, her major challenge was to persuade readers that “the USA had suffered a coup that had transformed an erstwhile liberal democracy into a literal-minded theocratic dictatorship”.

Spawned from America’s 17th century Puritan roots, the new Republic of Gilead that is the setting for the novel replaced the Constitution and Congress. It emerges in a place where the population is shrinking due to a toxic environment and the increasing inability to breed viable babies.

Atwood has said that one of her rules was that she wouldn’t “put any events into the book that had not already happened in what James Joyce called the ‘nightmare’ of history, nor any technology not already available. No imaginary gizmos, no imaginary laws, no imaginary atrocities”.

Clearly, the novel struck a nerve with readers everywhere.

Why, then, did she wait until now to publish a sequel? Could it have something to do with the fact that the USA of today is starting to resemble the fictional world of Gilead?

The election of Donald Trump has seen basic civil liberties trampled on, and the rights of women are being eroded daily. Division, fear and anxiety are stalking the streets, with violence bred by hatred an everyday occurrence. Power resides in a group of increasingly rich elite males who make all the rules.

Meanwhile, in Brexit-torn Britain, new Prime Minister Boris Johnson is being tried in a court of law for the suspension of parliament, accused of misleading not just the people but, God forbid, the Queen.

In Australia, we have just witnessed NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian threatened with a leadership spill if she didn’t agree to amendments to the Decriminalisation of Abortion Bill, while Barnaby Joyce has voiced robocalls to voters insisting that abortion is not a choice for women to make – ie, women should no longer be free to have control over their own bodies.

And, just as Atwood had predicted in The Handmaid’s Tale, there are many women who stand side by side with these controlling, right-wing religious men.

Then there are the misogynistic tirades of Alan Jones, Australia’s top rating broadcaster, who once suggested that former PM Julia Gillard be put in a chaff bag and thrown into the sea. More recently, after being incensed by New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s views on climate change, he told PM Scott Morrison that he should “shove a sock down her throat”. Was he taken off air or sacked? Of course not; he simply gave a limp apology.

Is it any wonder that trust has been eroded in politicians, corporate leaders and others in elite positions that give them the power to control our lives?

Margaret Atwood is launching The Testaments in a live interview to be shown in cinemas around the world. It will be fascinating to hear her talk about her latest work.

I found it quite different from The Handmaid’s Tale, in that it is more of a thriller, even though it does focus on how the Republic Of Gilead was created. It is told in the first person by three narrators, one of whom is the powerful Aunt Lydia, in whom the Bible melds with Machiavelli.

Atwood’s best advice is that before we read this sequel we should arm ourselves with the following thoughts:

Knowledge is power
History does not repeat itself,
but it rhymes.

Dr Susan Mitchell is introducing “Margaret Atwood Live” and chairing a Q&A afterwards at Palace Nova Eastend this Sunday, September 22, at 1pm. Details here.


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