The Testaments is a sequel to Margaret Atwood’s 1985 dystopian novel, The Handmaid’s Tale. It is set 15 years after the first, in the same totalitarian state of Gilead, where a fertility crisis and patriarchal fundamentalism have come together to foster a society where women are legally subordinate, with many in child-bearing slavery. The Handmaid’s Tale has found its way back into popular culture, more than 30 years after its initial release. It has inspired protests; in the US there has been a series of protests with the costume of a Handmade becoming synonymous with the resistance to what has been seen as the curtailment of women’s rights under Donald Trump’s presidency. Following a critically acclaimed TV series accompanying The Handmaid’s Tale that she helped write (and cameoed in), Atwood has written a sequel, dubbed “the literary event of the year”. Following its release, the book went straight to the top of bestseller lists and was also shortlisted for the Booker prize ahead of its publication.
The Testaments follows a similar patchwork style to its precedent work, where chapters are not always chronological. It is even more fractured, narrated by three different characters. In contrast, The Handmaid’s Tale is told entirely from Offred’s perspective, the Handmaid of high-ranking Commander Fred. Handmaids are fertile women who are passed around between elite families until they bear a child for them, with pregnancy being the only time they are given respect or recognition. Any hint of individual identity or agency is banished to memory, with even their names taken away and replaced by their superiors. Offred’s narration of events comes with personal introspection that is beautifully poetic and poignant at times. The Testaments, as the name suggests, reads more like a dialogue. It is the testimonial of three main characters: Aunt Lydia, Agnes and Daisy. Although less beautiful than The Handmaid’s Tale, having three main characters’ voices gives the benefit of multiple perspectives, allowing the reader to get to know Gilead in a multifaceted way.
The most compelling account in the book comes from Aunt Lydia. She is one of the founding members of the dictatorship and coordinates the womens’ sphere. As an aunt, she is among the only rank of women who is permitted to read and write, although her personal diary is smuggled. She chronicles her journey from a liberal judge before the rise of Gilead to the time she is writing, where a statue has been erected in her honour and her portrait hangs in every girls’ school. Torture and abuse is the main part of this journey, inflicted on and then by her. The description of these tactics is vivid and brutal, and at times difficult to read. Atwood says all the tortuous techniques described in the books are based on historical archives, and the details are chilling. The result is an incredibly cruel, cynical woman who has gone to incredible lengths to establish her power.
Aunt Lydia’s account bears almost no resemblance to that of Agnes. Raised in Gilead in an upper-class family, she knows no different to the society around her, and doubtful and pious in equal measure. She is naive and hopeful, despite being traumatised by the barbarity of the regime. Her youthful outlook is similar to that of Daisy, the third narrator. Daisy has grown up in Canada and offers an outsider’s perspective on Gilead. Her language and focus reads, at times, like young adult fiction. While her focus lies in toppling the regime, she makes time to ruminate on her crush and whether or not she is impressing him.
In some ways, the three storytellers have agency and hope, making The Testaments inherently less depressing than The Handmaid’s Tale. The feeling of optimism is helped, of course, by the fact that the readers know that Gilead does eventually fall. The complex female characters are well-developed, with their relationships depicted masterfully. The plot is fast-paced and enjoyable, but ultimately predictable. The Testaments satisfies the need to know more about Gilead and its eventual demise. It does not retract from The Handmaid’s Tale in any way, but it lacks originality and is a good sequel rather than an excellent work in its own right.