Margaret Atwood recently announced a sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale, inspired, she says, by “everything you’ve ever asked me about Gilead and its inner workings”. The Testaments, to be narrated by three different female characters, is set 15 years after the original ends. While many have received this news with excitement, I find myself hesitating before hitting the pre-order button. Like any true fan, I want answers to my questions. But will a second book ruin a literary phenomenon?
Take Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman, released decades after the ‘Greatest Novel of All Time’, To Kill a Mockingbird. This news was met with similar excitement (myself included), but on turning the final page I felt disappointed. Although Lee’s work was an unwanted draft marketed as a sequel – as one critic said – ‘reading Watchman will forever tarnish your memories of one of the most beloved books in American literature’. Some stories, especially titans of culture like To Kill a Mockingbird should be left alone.
From a publishing perspective, there couldn’t be a better time for a sequel. The phenomenal response to the TV series meant The Handmaid’s Tale was labelled Amazon’s most-read fiction of 2017. In the era of #MeToo, Atwood has stated that the novel has become ‘an international symbol of protest.’ There’s no denying that The Testaments will make an astronomical profit, but will it be at a significant cost to the first novel? One thing is certain: this work will not be judged on its own merits alone but with respect to its canonical older sister.
Much of the success of the original lies in what is left unsaid. The uncertainty of Ofred’s fate – torment or freedom – leaves the reader dangling. The novel demands answers but do we believe they are possible? George Orwell never wrote a sequel to 1984 because finding an ‘answer’ to Big Brother is too complex to envision. By giving us all the answers, the author robs their audience of the chance to think through the issues for themselves. Yet, fictional worlds, like Gilead, are outgrowing their initial inceptions as contemporary audiences demand a never-ending supply of content. The TV show, by diverging from the novel in its second series, has been criticised for its problematic portrayal of feminism and labelled as ‘torture porn’. This impetus to fill in the gaps threatens to undermine the nuances of Atwood’s original novel and turn what was thoughtfully ambiguous into something starkly defined. Atwood, having sold her rights to the show, perhaps feels compelled to provide us with her answer: to release this novel as an attempt to reclaim her authorial control and have the final say over what is ultimately ‘her’ world.
At the end of the day, it is not the audience’s place to police a writer’s creative urges. However, we can decide whether to pick up her sequel. I am still undecided. One thing is clear: The Testaments will inevitably forever reshape the way we read a masterpiece.