Margaret Atwood returns to the dystopian world of Gilead in this addictive sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale, which perhaps falls short of greatness but still offers a worthy follow-up.
The Handmaid’s Tale phenomenon has of course grown far beyond the original 1985 novel about the totalitarian Christian state in North America, with the hugely popular TV series continuing the story of its heroine past the book’s memorably ambiguous ending. The Testaments doesn’t try to offer an alternative story and instead leapfrogs the TV series fifteen years into the future, chronicling the events that trigger the eventual collapse of Gilead. It also shifts focus to a different class of the Gilead women, who are restricted to the roles of domestic servants, wives, prostitutes or childbearing Handmaids – the class of Aunts, the women in charge of women’s sphere, also the only women allowed to read and write.
While The Handmaid’s Tale offered a tightly focused, claustrophobic viewpoint of one character trapped in a suffocating brave new world where women are treated as property, the sequel broadens the perspective, splitting it between three main female characters. They’re Aunt Lydia, the hateful figure in charge of the Handmaids from the previous book; Agnes, a young woman who is brought up in Gilead from early childhood and knows nothing of the outside world, and Daisy, a teenager living in Canada with a couple whom she believes to be her parents. If The Handmaid’s Tale is fresh in your mind, it doesn’t take a genius to work out the true identities of Agnes and Daisy, even if the novel’s epilogue slyly warns the reader from jumping to conclusions.
This broader multi-character perspective works to both an advantage and detriment. The novel is at its best when it gets inside the mind of Aunt Lydia, a complex figure who, we discover, served as a judge in her pre-Gilead life and was recruited by the new regime to make up the new laws guiding the lives of women. Aunt Lydia is cynical and cunning, a consummate politician skilled at manipulating her rivals and allies both, writing her memoirs from a world-weary perspective sprinkled with acerbic humour. Her flashbacks to the beginnings of Gilead provide some of the novel’s most chilling scenes, and explain both her decision to contribute to the system oppressing her own sex, and her cold determination to survive and get revenge no matter how long it takes. While Aunt Lydia is not asking for the reader’s sympathy, it’s impossible to condemn her without confronting the uncomfortable question of what choices you’d make if faced with the same circumstances.
Aunt Lydia casts such a powerful, memorable spell that the two younger narrators inevitably pale in comparison. Agnes’ chapters at least offer a different experience of a devout Gilead believer who’s never known freedom; while she dreads the arranged marriage she’s been groomed for, she doesn’t really ask the big questions about the society she’s in. I found her perspective on life in Gilead interesting, and her friendship with Becka, a fellow classmate whose life and choices intersect with Agnes’ later on, is endearing and has a genuine emotional weight (by contrast, some of the familial drama in the last third of the book falls weirdly flat, as if Atwood wasn’t really interested beyond fulfilling a checklist). Daisy unfortunately is little more than your average YA novel heroine, a plucky teenager with a big secret who is taken in and trained by the resistance to play a crucial role in bringing down an oppressive regime… we’ve seen it a million times before.
Atwood remains a witty and irresistible writer and The Testaments is a compulsively readable, tightly plotted page-turner; I gobbled up its 400+ pages in a matter of hours. If anything it gets too fast-paced and plot-heavy in its final stretch, where the story turns into a high-stake road-tripping adventure, with little room left to explore the inner conflict and emotional state of the two young narrators whose lives are turned upside down. Also, when you stop and start thinking about the story, some implausible details don’t really stand close scrutiny.
The Handmaid’s Tale was a haunting cautionary tale deliberately constrained by its limited perspective to a great effect, with blank spaces and blurry edges left up to the reader’s imagination. The Testaments, in comparison, is more like a big propulsive thriller with not much room for ambiguity and a far more optimistic outlook. Would it stand on its own? Probably not, but then it’s unfair to judge a book that’s clearly meant to be a companion piece – and a highly entertaining one at that.