Books 28 November 2018 | 15:03

Back to Gilead: a publishing sensation

28 November 2018 15:03

For those of us who read The Handmaid’s Tale when it was first published in 1985 – and the millions who have watched the Hulu series it inspired starring Elisabeth Moss – the news that Margaret Atwood is publishing a sequel is nothing short of a literary sensation. It is as though J.D. Salinger had decided to write the further adventures of Holden Caulfield, or George Orwell had lived to write Nineteen Eighty-Five.

The original novel portrays the dystopian horror of a near-future America that has been reborn as the patriarchal theocracy of Gilead, and is the first-person account of Offred, one of the new class of handmaids who – because of their fertility – are subjected to ritualised rape by the ruling Commanders whose wives have been unable to conceive. Notionally a work of fiction, The Handmaid’s Tale was intended to make an unambiguous polemical point – namely, that every misogynistic practice described in the book was actually going on somewhere in the world in 1985.

The Hulu series, adapted with the enthusiastic support of the author, has breathed fresh life into the story and – though it was commissioned well before the Trump era and the global #MeToo movement – given it fresh topicality. Campaigners for reproductive rights in the US have taken to wearing the trademark red uniform and white bonnets of the handmaids: a deeply unsettling instance of life and art commingling to sharp political effect.

So many authors are precious about their novels’ transition to the screen, but Atwood has been a fierce champion of the series and of Moss’s remarkable performance as Offred. Her sequel, The Testaments, is set 15 years after the final scene of The Handmaid’s Tale and, unlike the original, is narrated by three female voices. It will be published in November, 2019, by Nan A. Talese (who honoured me in 2003 by publishing my own first novel and is a towering figure herself in the literary world.)

Why has Atwood returned to the world she created more than three decades ago? To this question, her answer is refreshingly direct: ‘Dear Readers: Everything you’ve ever asked me about Gilead and its inner workings is the inspiration for this book. Well, almost everything! The other inspiration is the world we’ve been living in.’

In other words, there is much more to say about the imaginative landscape and its untold stories. But it is no less clear that, as in 1985, Atwood wants to intervene directly in the politics of today and to hold up a quasi-fictional mirror to the gender revolution we are living through and the backlash it has triggered. I cannot think of a novel whose approach has excited me more, or one more likely to show that literature can still be a thrilling force in a world supposedly consumed by the grim shadow of populism.