For pure reading pleasure ‘The Testaments’, Margaret Atwood’s long-awaited sequel to “The Handmaid’s Tale,” lives up to every bit of the considerable pre-publication hype. Atwood’s original dystopian novel, published in 1985, ends like a Cold War thriller: the main character, Offred, escapes from Gilead, the Christian theocracy where as a “Handmaid” she is held in reproductive slavery. In the new book Atwood resumes the page-turning pace as she describes a plot by a small group of women, working together, to bring Gilead down.
Gilead returned to the public imagination, and “Handmaid” to the bestseller lists, after the 2016 US election and the Women’s March that followed. A TV series based on the book was then already in production; its 2017 release boosted book sales even more, while the red cloaks and white caps of the Handmaids became symbols of feminist protest. All this makes the new publication a major event. “The Testaments” is being released at an all-night book presentation in London, with appearances by literary stars from Jeanette Winterson to Neil Gaiman, plus extras dressed as Handmaids. The book has already been shortlisted for the Booker Prize.
In the new book, as in the series (which I haven’t seen), the initial shock at the eradication of women’s rights has given way to resistance. Gilead itself is settled, the powers of its fundamentalist police state consolidated. Given the current pressure on women’s rights in the US, you might expect Atwood to have adjusted Gilead to reflect current events; but she hasn’t added in a populist demagogue or concerns about migration. This makes “The Testaments” less topical, but also less prone to clichés and easy answers. Atwood was criticized after the first book came out for leaving out questions of race, but Gilead apparently remains an all-white society.
“The Testaments” wears its social critique more lightly than “Handmaid.” It opens 15 years or so after the events of the first book, and consists of the first-person recollections or testimonies of three women. Two of them are too young to remember a time before Gilead, and see it not as a nightmare but as a given. Not knowing their true relationship to the repressive state, however, puts them more at risk than they know.
One of them, Agnes, can’t help feeling nostalgic about her childhood in Gilead. “I imagine you expect nothing but horrors,” she remarks, but as a Commander’s daughter she felt only “loved and cherished.” A little wary, maybe, since girls are taught in school that they are “snares and enticements” for men whose further actions will be entirely their fault. Still, she works cheerfully at her embroidery and flower arranging. She’s never seen a book and doesn’t know there was a time when schoolgirls were taught to read.
Then, at thirteen, she is informed of her impending wedding. At first she doesn’t resist this arranged marriage except with “some moping and fretting…though since I pursued these activities alone in my room they had no influence.” Ultimately she takes more decisive action.
The second character, Daisy, grows up in free Toronto, knowing Gilead only from the news, until her parents are revealed to belong to the anti-Gilead resistance. A series of dramatic events then lands her across the border and in the hands of the dreaded Aunt Lydia, a chief strategist and anti-feminist ideologue of the Gilead regime.
It is Aunt Lydia, Offred’s old nemesis, who provides the surprising third testimony, revealing a career of expert flattery, blackmail, and torture in the service of securing influence–and with it her own safety. Power relations among women are a classic Atwood theme, and one she deploys masterfully in “The Testaments.” From schoolgirls to wicked stepmothers, all her characters, consciously or not, are fighting to move up in the social order. It’s a good thing, too, she suggests, for women to occupy themselves with obtaining power, because the only way out of Gilead is over the fallen bodies of the enemy.
Part of the pleasure of “The Testaments” is in the fresh encounter with themes at the heart of Atwood’s work. It echoes “Cat’s Eye” and “The Robber Bride,” those masterly studies of female friendship and betrayal. Along with “Alias Grace,” “The Blind Assassin,” “The Year of the Flood,” and her funny and endearing “Lady Oracle,” it navigates coming of age, showing subtly and movingly how girls play games with adult roles, putting on and taking off selves like suits of clothes. It’s telling that Daisy grows up in her parents’ second-hand store (a classic Atwood setting) and that each of the main characters in “The Testaments” is living under an assumed name.
“The Testaments” doesn’t have the emotional depth of its predecessor, with its intense focus on power, identity, and the sexual self. (Neither sex nor love has a part in the sequel.) But to read it only as a dystopian adventure story or a guide to current events is to underestimate the breadth of Atwood’s literary gifts. Part of Atwood is acting as an Aunt Lydia, a canny, self-aware manipulator of the plot. Another part invites us to think about the nature of freedom. Yet another is busy reinventing herself once more in the costume shop of literature.
Trouw, September 10, 2019