Margaret Atwood’s new work is full of feminist hope. But don’t dumb it down

Natasha Walter
Photograph: Vianney Le Caer/Rex/Shutterstock

In these dark and difficult political times, I often find myself craving clarity, looking for explanations and reassurances – and rarely, if ever, finding what I seek. When I got my hands on a precious copy of Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments a couple of days ago I was surprised by the almost physical hunger I felt to step back into Gilead. Obviously, I’m not alone, and one reason why this dystopia has hit the spot for many of us is its clarity. I’m not saying that there isn’t complexity of plot in Atwood’s creation, but in Gilead there is also a great deal of moral certainty. There is good, and there is evil. There is oppression, and there is resistance.

Related: The Testaments by Margaret Atwood review – a dazzling follow-up to The Handmaid’s Tale

The appearance of handmaids in their red cloaks has put heart into me at various protests over the past couple of years. I have photographed them at women’s marches in London and seen them gather in courtrooms in the US. Although they are a symbol of a possibly terrifying future, they are also a symbol of shared understanding, which gives me hope. And The Testaments, unlike The Handmaid’s Tale itself, is a truly hopeful tale. It reassures us that we are right to fear our enemies and right to resist them, and it reassures us that totalitarianism can be seen off.

This second novel provides even more of this hopefulness, because it is about the resistance to Gilead. We saw seeds of resistance in The Handmaid’s Tale, but they were constantly being smothered or ripped out. Here, we learn how they have taken root – including in some unexpected places. The Testaments is a more accessible novel than The Handmaid’s Tale, sharing some of the tone of the spin-off television series, which necessarily tended to replace introspection with action. These heroines are marvellously resourceful, almost superhuman in their bravery, able to live undercover for years, oversee underground networks, slip across borders, mastermind spy rings, manipulate colleagues, fell enemies with a blow.

There is little, here, of the quotidian ordinariness of much political resistance, which can so often turn out to be disappointingly humdrum and compromised. It is massively satisfying to find this kind of heightened reality in fiction, to see the world in an exaggerated mode, the patterns standing out so much more clearly than in the one in which we live.

Even though in these resonant books she creates such a stark political vision, it’s intriguing that Atwood has nevertheless been keen to say that she is not writing a manifesto. She has often pushed back in interviews, when asked about her relationship to feminism, against the idea that she will provide “a megaphone for any one particular set of beliefs”. As she wrote in the New York Times in 2017: “Is The Handmaid’s Tale a ‘feminist’ novel? If you mean an ideological tract in which all women are angels and/or so victimized they are incapable of moral choice, no.”

It is hardly surprising that a writer of such inventive fiction would be nervous of the idea that her work could be pigeonholed into any ideological framework. There is a fear among many female writers and film-makers that to call your work feminist means to curtail its imaginative impact and suggest it should be read as propaganda. This is the same conception of feminist fiction that was so powerfully rejected by another great writer, the late Doris Lessing, whose work was also often claimed for the feminist movement. In 1982 she trenchantly told an interviewer: “What the feminists want of me is something they haven’t examined because it comes from religion. They want me to bear witness. What they would really like me to say is, ‘Ha, sisters, I stand with you side by side in your struggle toward the golden dawn where all those beastly men are no more.’ Do they really want people to make oversimplified statements about men and women? In fact, they do.”

Eighteen years ago I had a little exchange with Lessing about her view of feminism. She wrote to me to clarify reports of comments she had made about men and women, but also to double down on her disappointment with the women’s movement, which she said expended too much of its “wonderful energy” in rubbishing men. In my response, I conceded that I should probably stop calling her a feminist. “Perhaps I am wrong to call you a feminist,” I wrote. “It’s silly to stick a label on you that you wouldn’t choose yourself.”

I had forgotten about that exchange over the years, but was recently reminded of it by the University of East Anglia, where the letters will be going on display in a new exhibition (Doris Lessing 100, which is opening this week).

But when I reread these letters, I realised that despite my concession in 2001, I still see Lessing’s fiction as deeply feminist. Because whenever I dip back into Lessing’s work, particularly The Golden Notebook, the Children of Violence series or her memoirs, I cannot but remember how important she was to the growth of my and other women’s feminism. Without Anna Wulf or Martha Quest and their fiercely uncompromising relationships with their own bodies and their partners, it’s almost impossible to imagine the kind of wry, honest, explicit fiction by women we now take for granted. These heroines killed off the “Angel in the House” that Virginia Woolf complained about, and revealed women in their full, often dislikable, but utterly mesmerising humanity.

Lessing’s heroines are too complicated to be easily understood, and they struggle to understand themselves. Their sexual and family relationships are messy and challenging, and their political activity provides no easy journey either, but is fraught and compromised. And that lack of clarity, in itself, is feminist.

Because feminism is partly just about finding ways to express women’s full humanity and refusing to accept frames that may flatten our experiences. Feminist fiction is not just about making our political world clearer and simpler. It is not just about providing us with reassurance that we are on the side of the good. We see that complexity time and again in Atwood’s fiction too, even if the popular conception of Gilead, especially the way it has been disseminated through political protest and the television series, has often flattened it out for us. The television series in particular sometimes began to feel as if it was trying to bludgeon us with its lessons about the violence of misogynist oppression.

And Atwood too sees her work as feminist in this way. She went on to write about whether The Handmaid’s Tale was feminist: “If you mean a novel in which women are human beings – with all the variety of character and behavior that implies – and are also interesting and important, and what happens to them is crucial to the theme, structure and plot of the book, then yes.”

Then, yes. This is the view of feminist fiction that is most valuable. A political novel is not necessarily one that gives you a manifesto, but one that enables you to expand your political understanding of a messy and difficult world. Which is why I would say that there is at least one other important feminist novel on the Booker shortlist alongside Atwood’s. Bernardine Evaristo’s Girl, Woman, Other gives the reader no roadmap for resistance, no advice, no clarification. But by knitting together the lives of a diverse set of women, what it does do is explore the experiences and listen to the voices that we need to hear from – and often comes back with uncomfortable and urgent news. Some of her heroines succeed by compromise and some by resistance; some live out lies and some insist on the truth, some make their own narratives and some are overcome by others’ needs. For this white reader, this kind of tapestry reminds us of how often black women’s full humanity is skimmed over. This novel shifts our perspectives; it complicates our worldview.

For me, the most vital political fiction is fiction that makes us feel the irreducible humanity of those who are constantly being forgotten. At a time when empathy often seems to be contracting, when political views admit less and less nuance, let’s not be afraid of complexity. There are no easy answers in our real or imaginary worlds, and let’s not pretend that there ever will be.

• Natasha Walter is director of Women for Refugee Women and author of Living Dolls: The Return of Sexism