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On Fear and Margaret Atwood's The Testaments

The end of 2019 seemed like the right time to reencounter Margaret Atwood's classic The Handmaid's Tale. One obvious reason was the release of the follow-up, The Testaments, but the timbre and tone of the day also had their say in my return to Gilead. Perhaps because it had been so long since I'd first read it, or perhaps because of the way it feels to be a woman in today's society, but this reading of The Handmaid's Tale often left me slack-jawed with admiration at the vision and skill of Atwood. It also reminded me of the dangers of fear: our collective fear as well as my own daily lived fear.

The Testaments is not a story to assuage the daily fear, but it does provide an answer to the fear: hope. Those familiar with The Handmaid's Tale know that it, too, leaves us with an uncertain hope, but the strength of The Testaments is its certainty -- certainty that regardless of the evil and the corruption and the endless wrestling for power, human goodness and justice can still endure.

"Where there is an emptiness, the mind will obligingly fill it up. Fear is always at hand to supply any vacancies, as is curiosity. I have had ample experience with both" (238).

Atwood has the consistent gift of being able to capture a most terrifying and realistic future, tinged with an almost comic tone. It's something like the burble that gathers in your gut when you aren't sure if you're going to burst out laughing or soil yourself. Or, as Atwood seems to get, maybe both.

In The Testaments, we find ourselves in Gilead many years after the events of The Handmaid's Tale. This time, the story unfolds through multiple documents that have survived the fall of Gilead and have recently been unearthed: two witness transcripts and something called The Ardua Hall Holograph. Those familiar with The Handmaid's Tale will likely have an easy time pulling the threads together, but have no fear if you never read the original: this book stands well on its own. Those documents take the reader back even further than did Handmaid, revealing in more detail the ways Gilead came to be; they also give us a future that extends beyond the original tale.

There are atrocities. There are moments that drive that fear deeper into my belly and make long to place a protective arm around all our daughters. But because Gilead has fallen, and because there is a truth to be examined on the other side of that time and place, there is also hope. A dark hope, perhaps. But a necessary one.


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