Book Review: The Testaments by Margaret Atwood

 

In this brilliant sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale, acclaimed author Margaret Atwood answers the questions that have tantalized readers for decades.

When the van door slammed on Offred’s future at the end of The Handmaid’s Tale, readers had no way of telling what lay ahead for her–freedom, prison or death.

With The Testaments, the wait is over.

Margaret Atwood’s sequel picks up the story more than fifteen years after Offred stepped into the unknown, with the explosive testaments of three female narrators from Gilead.

“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.” –Margaret Atwood

Note: Spoilers for The Handmaid’s Tale book and Hulu TV series are mentioned in this review, although not in great detail. It feels impossible to talk about The Testaments without referencing both.

When The Handmaid’s Tale was published in 1985, it was both revolutionary and revelatory. In it, Margaret Atwood imagined the nation of Gilead, an autocratic theocracy created through the violent overthrow of the United States government. In a world in which fertility rates had fallen drastically, one of Gilead’s prime commandments was procreation by whatever means necessary, including the forced servitude of fertile women as Handmaids, women forced to conceive and carry babies that they’d have no claim to. Through ritualized rape, Handmaids endured their roles as vessels and chattel belonging to the Commanders and their wives — or faced gruesome punishments, including mutilation and death.

Gilead was not much kinder to the Commanders’ wives, who were expected to know their places and stay there. Women’s rights were gone absolutely — no ownership, no money, no independence. No reading! Reading was considered such a sin for women that all public signs were replaced with pictures — a drawing of food to denote a store, rather than letters spelling out words.

In The Testaments, years have passed since the end of The Handmaid’s Tale. Gilead continues on, still in power, still subjecting its women to its caste system and degradations, at war with Canada and battling to take down the resistance group Mayday. In this new novel, the story is told through three different narrators’ first-person story.

First, and probably most familiar to both readers and viewers of the TV series, is Aunt Lydia. We’ve known her up to now as one of the system’s enforcers, one of the Aunts whose job it is to train Handmaids and keep them in line through whatever means necessary. Here, we hear Aunt Lydia telling her own story, and we see a much more complex take on who she is and how she came to be this way. Her backstory is fascinating — and, it’s worth noting, substantially different than that of the Aunt Lydia character in the Hulu version. Prior to Gilead, Aunt Lydia was a well-respected and well-established judge. When the forces of Gilead came to power, Aunt Lydia and her colleagues were rounded up, imprisoned, and tortured, until they either agreed to work for Gilead or were executed.

Lydia opted for self-preservation — although it’s left ambiguous as to what her true motivation is. Is she only about her own survival? Or is she playing a very long game, establishing her own power base in her own domain with the goal of bringing down Gilead from within? And if the latter is true, how could she stomach all that she had to do to gain and retain her power? She’s a perplexing character, clearly able to be quite cruel and manipulative and deadly… yet she does save girls from terrible situations as well, and finds her own sly and subtle ways to get back at the Commanders who wrong her and other women.

The second narrator is Agnes Jemima, whom we first meet as a young school girl. Agnes is the privileged daughter of a Commander and his wife Tabitha, and while Agnes’s relationship with her father is formal and distant, she and Tabitha have a loving, tightly bonded connection. Tabitha entertains Agnes with stories, including a fantastical story of rescuing Agnes from a castle and running away with her through the woods. This rings true to Agnes — she has a very vague memory of running through a forest.

Meanwhile Agnes attends school for girls and learns appropriately girlish subjects. But when Tabitha dies, Agnes’s life changes dramatically, from learning that she was actually born to a Handmaid to gaining a new stepmother. And the stepmother can’t wait to be rid of Agnes, pushing for her to marry (at age 13!) so the family can secure a connection to another powerful man. Agnes’s wishes matter not at all.

Third, we meet Daisy, a 16-year-old Canadian girl living with kind but overprotective parents, ready to become politically active despite her parents’ wishes. When tragedy strikes, Daisy learns the truth about her own life. She’s actually Baby Nicole, Gilead’s internationally famous poster child, who was smuggled out of Gilead by her Handmaid mother as an infant and who’s become the symbol of righteous struggle (for Gilead) and the battle to overthrow Gilead (for the opposition). Daisy’s protectors come up with a crazy scheme to smuggle Daisy back into Gilead, to become a resistance courier and retrieve a cache of documents so powerful they could lead to Gilead’s demise.

Insane as it seems, Daisy agrees to the plan, and returns to Gilead in the guise of a convert seeking to become a novitiate Aunt. Here, the three main characters’ paths intersect and become tightly woven together.

It’s an intricate plot, full of the social commentary and political intrigue we’d expect in the sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale — but the book’s success hinges on the three main characters. We have to believe in them, understand them, and invest in their quests… and for me, at least, I absolutely did.

It’s a fascinating journey, although I couldn’t separate myself from the TV series while reading the book. Although it’s never stated explicitly, it’s plain that Agnes is the child taken from Offred (June) in The Handmaid’s Tale. It’s absolutely heart-wrenching to see that she has no memory whatsoever of her mother. We also understand that Baby Nicole is Offred’s second child, born during her time as a Handmaid. Baby Nicole’s birth and escape to Canada feature very prominently in seasons 2 and 3 of the TV series, although events seem to have unfolded in the world of The Testaments in a different manner. For those who haven’t watched the series, I wonder how long it would take for the connection between Agnes and Nicole to become clear.

By having these two young women telling their stories, we gain a very different perspective on Gilead from that shown via Offred in The Handmaid’s Tale. For Agnes, growing up in Gilead is just normal. She doesn’t miss reading, because it was never part of her life. She accepts the social structure as the way things are supposed to be, because that’s all she’s known, and being from a Commander’s family, she’s grown up with privileges and in as much safety as any female in Gilead could have. Through Nicole’s experience, we get to see how weird it would be to be thrust into this situation, to learn to hide by pretending to be obedient and meek, and to meet face to face with girls her own age who are completely alien to her.

Finally, through Lydia’s version of the tale, we see yet another view of the founding of Gilead and its power structure, and see how survival is both a choice and a price. Lydia is fascinating. I’m so eager to hear other readers’ interpretations of her character as portrayed in The Testaments.

The Testaments is a powerful, engrossing read, and absolutely a worthy sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale. Very thought-provoking, and very much worth reading.

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The details:

Title: The Testaments
Author: Margaret Atwood
Publisher: Nan A. Talese
Publication date: September 10, 2019
Length: 422 pages
Genre: Dystopian fiction
Source: Purchased

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