Margaret Atwood: ‘The Testaments’ reviewed

❉ Keri Thomas reviews the highly anticipated sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale.

“With the slow, inexorable erosion of women’s rights rolling out in front of us, Atwood has responded to the changes in our discourse and our understanding of the world in her inimitable way”

I read The Handmaid’s Tale in early 2000. I was tutoring English Literature for the extra bucks and ended up teaching a somewhat incalcitrant student who’d turn up to lessons stoned. Not an edifying experience, exacerbated by the fact I was reading The Color Purple at the same time, so the general mood was low. 

I still remember the shock I felt at Atwood’s tale of Offred, the renegade Handmaid desperate to escape the horrors of a near-future theonomy. How crazy is it to think that things like that used to happen, I thought. How far we’ve come. 

Here we are in 2019. With the Hulu adaptation of the original novel already in its third season, alongside the ongoing dumpster fire that is politics today, we recognise the slow, inexorable erosion of women’s rights rolling out in front of us. Atwood has responded to the changes in our discourse and our understanding of the world in her inimitable way, taking us back into the heart of Gilead with The Testaments, her latest novel. 

Framed in the same deliciously metafictional way as its predecessor, as a series of witness statements discovered by academics long after the fall of the regime, we see Gilead 15 years down the road. The Commanders are still in power, and everyone continues to live ‘under His Eye’, albeit in increasingly constrained circumstances. There is rationing, and a war against an unnamed aggressor (shades here of 1984) – things are falling apart, and we start to sense that the centre cannot hold.

The Aunts are almost a Gothic trope, moving on oiled wheels throughout the narrative. We are re-introduced to Aunt Lydia, whom we met in the first novel as one of those responsible for the indoctrination of the Handmaids. Here she is more nuanced; less an outright horror, more a survivor who follows the prevailing wind as a means of survival. We see how she ascended to her position; the decisions she makes in order to live, and the people she sacrifices along the way.  

The two other Testaments are provided by Daisy, a teenager living in Canada and Agnes, a child who’s lived her whole life within Gilead’s borders. Having read the previous book you get a sense of who these young women are, so there’s little mystery there, but it’s in the Aunt Lydia chapters where we get the majority of the suspense and intrigue. She engages in a level of game playing that would make Machiavelli crack out his pen and take notes. 

Atwood is excellent at conveying poignancy in the smallest things. An early chapter describing a mother and child playing with a doll’s house is imbued with sadness, though you don’t really know why at first. In fact all of Agnes’ early chapters are laden with a sense of foreboding; her beautiful, fragile mother, largely absent father and happy childhood are almost a fairytale, into which death and sadness must almost certainly come. 

The more robust Daisy, living as she does in Canada, is a teenager we can relate to more easily in all her youthful obnoxiousness. Here, too, however, is melancholy – Atwood describes the imperceivable distance between Daisy and her mother with the simple line: “She smelled like a floral guest soap in a strange house I was visiting…she didn’t smell to me like my mother.” 

Daisy nevertheless attends school, argues with her parents and has moments of predictable rebellion; it is one of these moments that changes the circumstances of all three of our characters. 

There are elements that test the credibility somewhat, but the reader is so invested that they hardly seems to matter. And the denouement, whilst neat, is extremely satisfying in some respects but, typically, Atwood leaves us with another somewhat ambiguous ending; we’re longing for an escape, but we’re left in the dark as to whether it’s achieved. 

You don’t have to be a woman or a mother to be appalled at the concept of Gilead, but reading the book from my position as both provided a genuine sense of trepidation. Atwood shows us in unflinching detail how easily it would be for society to lurch into such a dictatorship and for your old life to suddenly becomes the vice that traps you. 

The core of The Testaments is this: what would you do, if it came down to it? Would you be the freedom fighter, the Mayday operative; or would you become a cog in the machine as it rolls over the bodies and bones of its victims? For Lydia the answer is simple. As she dons the cowl she asks the reader: “What else should I have done?” 

❉ Margaret Atwood’s ‘The Testaments’ was published worldwide on 10 September.

Dr. Keri Thomas is an academic researcher and FE lecturer currently working in social media management. Based in Aberystwyth in Mid Wales, her particular field of interest is what happens to cultural artefacts when you digitise them. She’s partial to a good cheese and an even better red wine.

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