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11 Books To Read If You Like “The Handmaid’s Tale”

From Margaret Atwood’s just-released sequel The Testaments to Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go.

Posted on September 12, 2019, at 3:22 p.m. ET

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The Testaments, Margaret Atwood

It’s here! The highly anticipated sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale is out now and picks up 15 years after Offred steps into that black van, her fate unknown. Instead of one narrator, Atwood expands to three: Aunt Lydia, the devious mastermind behind the Rachel and Leah Center — where Handmaids learn how to prepare for their lives as concubines, and two young girls — Daisy, a 16-year-old who lives in Toronto with her liberal parents and goes to protests against Gilead, and Agnes, who has grown up in Gilead with a high-ranking Commander father and attends school to learn how to become a diligent, submissive wife. How the three women end up converging is part of the suspense of the novel, which generally unfolds as a much more straightforward thriller than Handmaid’s — fitting for the upcoming TV show it will soon be.

The Water Cure, Sophie Mackintosh

Margaret Atwood raved about this Booker-nominated debut novel (and March BuzzFeed Book Club pick) about three sisters who live on a remote island with their parents. An unexplained ecological disaster has rendered the mainland uninhabitable. Men are apparently responsible for this toxicity and only certain bizarre tests that their parents administer can save the sisters from contamination. But when their father disappears and three strange men appear on the island, the strict rules and dictums the girls have always followed begin to unravel. Written in dreamy present tense and alternating points of view from the three sisters, The Water Cure takes an original, complicated look at how abuse, toxic masculinity, and gaslighting collide.

Future Home of the Living God, Louise Erdrich

Cedar Hawk Songmaker, the 26-year-old, pregnant adopted Ojibwe daughter of white liberal Minnesotans, must outsmart a government hellbent on incarcerating all pregnant women after evolution stops working in this dystopian thriller by one of our great American novelists. Written as a letter to her unborn baby, the novel feels incredibly timely as it charts Cedar’s plan to escape with both her adoptive parents and the birth family she discovers early on in the novel.

The Power, Naomi Alderman

What would happen if women were more powerful than men? This is essentially the premise of Alderman’s bestselling 2016 novel in which women discover they have an unexplainable superpower, a form of electricity they can wield over men. It’s a power that develops during puberty, and at first women are sequestered from society, but soon they take advantage of their new gift, exacting revenge and proving themselves to be just as capable of abuse as men are. Atwood was apparently Alderman’s mentor on this novel and praise be, Amazon snatched up the rights and it will soon be a TV series as well.

Severance, Ling Ma

The Shen Fever, a fungal virus, turns people into zombies in Ma’s debut novel — technically they’re alive, but they are trapped in a loop, washing the dishes over and over again, or cooking or cleaning. In the aftermath, Candace Chen, a pregnant twentysomething Bible designer, falls in with a group of folks who raid houses for food on their journey to the Facility, where they are supposed to find safety. Shifting perspectives between her life in New York before the virus and afterward, Severance is a haunting reflection on memory, late capitalism, and the desperation that happens when it appears that the world might actually end.

Pet, Akwaeke Emezi

Emezi’s second book and first YA novel offers up a glimpse of what restorative justice in a utopian world could look like. In the city of Lucille, all monsters — police, teachers, judges, even the mayor who enabled unjust shootings — have been eliminated by angels, ordinary humans who have cleansed the town of racism, sexual abuse, sexism, and the like. Or so they think. Jam, a young black trans girl soon learns that there is a monster in their midst. Teaming up with her best friend Redemption, they set out to find the culprit. In its tantalizing possibilities of what a just world could look like, it’s a solid Handmaid’s chaser.

Women Talking, Miriam Toews

Atwood famously said that she didn’t write anything in The Handmaid’s Tale that didn’t actually happen to women at some point in human history and this fellow beloved Canadian writer’s latest novel is another grim reminder of the cruelties women have had to endure. Based on real events, Women Talking sits in on a meeting of Mennonite women living in a remote Bolivian colony as they debate whether or not to flee after finding out that some of the women were being drugged and raped by fellow male Mennonite members. Essentially illiterate, the women talk through their grief and trauma. “I think about these women all the time. During the actual writing it was necessary to keep their pain, that particular agony, inside of me while I was writing,” Toews told Maris Kreizman in a profile earlier this year.

Never Let Me Go, Kazuo Ishiguro

Whom a body actually belongs to is a central question in both The Handmaid’s Tale and this 2005 classic Ishiguro novel. Thirty-one-year-old Kathy H. looks back at her early years attending Hailsham, an English boarding school where she became close friends with tempestuous Ruth and the overly emotional Tommy. Over the years, the nature of their relationships change as they find out the sobering reason they have been sequestered from the rest of society and the true nature of their existence. A beautiful, elegiac tale that looks at the ethics of certain medical procedures.

The Fifth Season, N.K. Jemisin

Jemisin’s epic, Hugo-award winning 2015 novel (the first in her Broken Earth series) follows three characters who are gifted with the power to control energy in an oppressive future society. Known as orogenes, their powers make them feared even as they tame the destructive natural disasters that occur regularly on the planet Stillness — and mark their children as well. Building a complex world that’s still rife with the cruelties of the real one we all inhabit, Jemisin’s book serves as an engrossing warning sign for our future.

The Dispossessed, Ursula K. Le Guin

One of the perverse pleasures in reading about Atwood’s Gilead is seeing how the founders of this fictional theocracy dole out societal roles for men and women. In Gilead, women cannot read, only men or Aunts can. Women must cover their hair, but are not allowed to shave it (it is their crowning glory); men cannot enter the kitchen without a woman’s permission because it is the woman’s domain. And of course, any extramarital sex is forbidden. In Ursula K. Le Guin’s iconic 1974 novel, traditional roles are upended on the planet Anarres, where men and women are equal partners; sex, or copulation, as Le Guin phrases it, between men and women or same-sex partners is both allowed and abundant. Le Guin paints a compelling portrait of what a society not predicated on capitalism or heteropatriarchy can look like, even if it’s not as perfect as it seems.

Parable of the Sower, Octavia Butler

One of the haunting elements of The Handmaid’s Tale is seeing how a confluence of factors — ecological disaster, economic precariousness, and the like — create an environment ripe for a totalitarian takeover. In Butler’s classic 1993 novel, she mines similar themes through Lauren Oya Olamina, a young black girl living with her father and stepmother in a gated community in Los Angeles. But when her community is attacked, she’s forced to join other survivors in a brutally indifferent, racist world. Fortunately, Lauren has a heightened gift for empathy that she wishes to impart upon the masses. ●

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