I have been looking forward to reading the widely anticipated sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale ever since I first heard about it so my expectations were high, and I was not disappointed.
The story takes place 15 years after the previous novel and gives us a lot more insight into the inner workings of Gilead. The book follows the lives of Aunt Lydia, the only character brought forward from the first book, Agnes, a girl who is born into and grows up in Gilead as a fully formed society and knows nothing of what society was like before, and Daisy, a teenage girl living in Canada.
The book being written from three different perspectives is an intelligent way for Atwood to provide us with a greater understanding of Gilead and nuances of it. Where the first book focuses entirely on the life of a handmaid, only giving us minimal understanding of the lives of other women who aren’t handmaids, this book flips that on its head and spends very little time concerned with the handmaids.
Instead we spend most of our time in Gilead focused on the lives of the aunts, finding out how Aunt Lydia ended up where she is, how she lives in Gilead and what the purpose of the aunts is. I particularly enjoyed this aspect of the book because Aunt Lydia is presented almost as a villain in the first novel and so to be able to understand who she was before Gilead, how she gained her position in society and what her motivations are was fascinating.
Similarly, to see what it is like to be born into Gilead, as Agnes is, was incredibly interesting because she has no knowledge of what society was like and therefore, doesn’t understand why women in the rest of world may believe things contrary to the doctrine of Gilead. The perspective Agnes has of the world also felt fairly juvenile to me which I did not expect because although she is a young child at the start of the book, by the end she is an adult and yet because she lacks so much understanding of the world outside Gilead she possesses a naivety that makes her seems almost child-like even as an adult.
The only issue I found with the changing perspectives throughout the novel was that it was at times slightly confusing to read. This is particularly prevalent at the start of the book because you are still getting to know the characters of Agnes and Daisy, so I found myself getting the two confused at points, forgetting who was who. This confusion was also increased by the chapters not alternating equally, with the book sometimes spending three or four chapters on Aunt Lydia before returning to the others.
However, once you have a clearer idea of each of the characters, this book really comes alive. Finding out about the true power dynamics within Gilead, once you go beyond the surface level perception that men have all the power, was intriguing and greatly added a level of suspense at crucial points in the story, which was enhanced by the switching perspectives which always left you desperate to find out what was going to happen to each woman.
My one difficulty of this novel was that I found that the plot progressed quite slowly. The pacing of this sequel is very similar to the original novel where the plot progression only picks up as you are coming to end of the book. Although I can recognise that this is an intelligent stylistic choice on the part of Atwood given the topic of the novel, I personally find it slightly slow going and with both books felt a slight lull in my motivation just before the plot all comes together.
Having said that, this in no way takes away from my enjoyment of this novel, which presents a world that feels scarily possible and yet so dystopian. This a genuine masterpiece of a novel.