I wasn’t sure what to expect reading The Testaments, especially after its prequel, The Handmaid’s Tale had such a profound impact on my life – as it did with so many others too (I couldn’t bring myself to watch the TV series, despite all the amazing reviews and awards, because I didn’t want the impression the book left to be diluted or, dare I say, translated in any way). It’s not incorrect to say that because of studying that book at university (and Shirley Hazzard’s The Transit of Venus), I underwent a career change becoming an academic for over 25 years. Over some of that time, I introduced others to the wonder, power and terrible vision of Offred and Gilead’s story, reliving and appreciating its formidable narrative every single time. So, what would the sequel a book, as Atwood herself said, 35 years in the making offer? Would it destroy the foundations laid so long ago or build upon them in a way that is as astonishing and frightening as the first book?
The Testaments begins fifteen years after Offred disappeared from Gilead and readers heard her harrowing tale (and which we’d just borne witness to), interpreted through the lens of history and the dry rhetoric of an academic conference – a brilliant metaphor on its own. Told from three different points of view – that of one of the most influential and dreadful of the Aunts, a young Gileadian girl destined to become a Wife, and then from an outsider’s perspective – Gilead, the state that oppresses and subjugates in the name of God and specific interpretations of the Bible – is no less chilling and the themes and incidents no less prescient than they were in The Handmaid’s Tale. Once more, the reader is given insight into the socio-cultural structures that make Gilead; how the regime demands complete and utter surrender and also how it inculcates people into being complicit in upholding its dominant paradigms, even when they oppress them.
Just as we were in The Handmaid’s Tale, we’re given snapshots into the coup that overturned a mighty Republic, and how those in power maintained it. Through particular individuals and roles, we’re also given entrée to the domestic arrangements – whereas it was once through the eyes of a Handmaiden, this time it is mainly through the Wives, Marthas, Commanders, and daughters of the privileged.
How Gilead is viewed by the rest of the world, how it is and isn’t tolerated and the resistance movements that try and aid those wishing to escape its clutches, is also shown, as are how these organisations are represented within Gilead. Propaganda is not exclusive to one country or ideology, even if the reader is clearly meant to identify with the freer world.
Whereas the three different narrative strands first appear distinct, as this tale unfolds, they’re slowly woven together until the title of the book becomes both literal and another powerful trope.
Questions posed or left unanswered in The Handmaid’s Tale are mostly resolved (which was terrific), and what I really liked is that once more, historians are not let off the hook, even if the work they do isn’t disrespected but revealed to be, by nature, limited as well as complex and nuanced (even if some in that field are not).
This was an at once extraordinary and terrifying read in that so much of what unfolds holds up a dark mirror to contemporary politics, gender and sexual identity, social roles and movements. But it’s also fabulously entertaining, page-turning and exciting as well – Atwood is a master storyteller who knows how to keep her readers riveted. I wish I could say that The Testaments is only a marvellous and authoritative work of fiction, but I fear it is something much more and even darker – it’s also a warning. One has only to look at the state of world politics now and the rise of the extreme religious right to see parallels. Atwood has put us on notice and woe betide if we don’t heed what she says…