Review of Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments
The Testaments doesn’t try to recapture the dark magic of its predecessor but produces a different kind of magic all its own, sharp and grinding, filled with terror and small acts of heroism that add up to great ones. It’s a grueling and beautifully-written story of fighting, scraping, and discovering that even when you escape there might still be a bloody mess to deal with. It’s the excellent sequel that Atwood’s readers have spent years waiting for.
It’s odd to say that this is the sequel of Atwood’s iconic novel The Handmaid’s Tale that fans of the book have spent years waiting for, considering that for most of that time Atwood herself had no intention of ever writing a sequel. But in a testament of its own to our connected global age, Atwood came around to the idea of doing it not just because of the increasingly disturbing Gilead-esque events around the world she was witnessing, but also because so many people over the years – decades – asked her for one, and often asked the same questions. These included How did Gilead fall?, a collapse alluded to in the original book’s epilogue.
Atwood doesn’t give us a direct sequel – the story of Offred ends (one way or another) at the end of Handmaid’s Tale. But she does answer the question about the end of Gilead. In a way she gives us three answers ultimately woven into one, by way of three characters – all women - telling their stories separately before they thread together. The first, a professional and political woman in Washington D.C. at the time Gilead dissolved the United States, who vowed not only to survive but doing whatever was necessary to fight her way to the upper echelons of power; a teenager named Daisy living in Canada who mistakenly thinks that she has no connection with Gilead until her connection finds her violently; and Agnes, daughter of a Commander, a child born into the wealth and privilege of the Gilead system, groomed to be a future Commander’s wife. All three stories are told as “testaments”. The first, by the dreaded Aunt Lydia, tells her story through a hidden manuscript, while the other two are given as “witness” testimonies.
Atwood has carefully crafted each story to engage the reader in a different way and on a different level. Aunt Lydia is at the heart of Gilead’s power structure, is one of its arteries. She knows where the secrets are hidden, where the bodies are buried, and which people are most likely about to become buried bodies. We get a deeper look at the society than would have ever been possible through Offred. In the case of Daisy, between her secretive parents and Atwood’s subtle foreshadowing, there is clearly more going on just behind the curtain than she knows. Readers catching the clues will figure out early on who she really is and will be turning pages to find out what part she eventually plays in Gilead’s destruction. The story of Agnes, who has known nothing but Gilead, may strike some as the thinnest of the three initially, but patience is rewarded. Following the death of someone beloved her story is one of gradually overcoming her fears and her upbringing to eventually (if not inevitably) question her own role first, then larger parts of the society itself.
Atwood faced two daunting tasks in writing the book: first to create something following up a work that has become deeply embedded in American culture; then to believably detail how three people could bring a society crashing down. For the second challenge, as each character presents a unique perspective to the reader, each is also uniquely placed to chip away (or hack, or bulldoze) at Gilead’s weakening underpinnings. Aunt Lydia the secret-holder, who knows those weak spots intimately; Agnes’ privileged “purity”; and Daisy, a wild card, raised in an independent and non-conformist atmosphere while also placed in an ideal position to be used by others towards their own ends. Throw in a constant war that has depleted Gilead’s resources and forced increasing austerity on its citizens, and you have a boiling recipe for collapse.
As to the first challenge, something that seemed nearly impossible to pull off but countless fans had asked her to do, Atwood doesn’t try to recreate her first book – to the point where the reader only gets cursory glimpses of handmaidens – but portrays a world of contradictions. We get scenes every bit as grim and stark as those in Handmaid’s Tale, including a look at the savagery Aunt Lydia endured both to survive at Gilead’s genesis as well as to rise in the ranks later, but also, paradoxically, the things that she and Agnes consider to be good and beautiful. It’s Atwood’s poignant reminder that there are beautiful things in life even among evil circumstances, though they are not enough to justify preserving the evil.
But while The Testaments doesn’t try to recapture the dark magic of its predecessor, it produces a different kind of magic all its own, sharp and grinding, filled with terror and small acts of heroism that add up to great ones. It’s a grueling and beautifully-written story of fighting, scraping, and discovering that even when you escape there might still be a bloody mess to deal with. It’s the excellent sequel that Atwood’s readers have spent years waiting for.
(Note: The Testaments was the co-winner, with Bernardine Evaristo’s Girl, Woman, Other for the 2019 Booker Prize for Fiction – the annual award given for the best English-language fiction book published in the United Kingdom.)~Danny Adams
November 4, 2019