The Testaments, by Margaret Atwood, is the sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale that I never realised I needed. To say I was excited for this book to be released would be a huge understatement. Fortunately, I was not disappointed. This was one of those books where I stayed up until 1am just to finish reading it, too close to the end to separate myself from this world. To summarise, The Testaments (TT) is an awesome book that had me gripped, but if you are looking for a carbon copy of the original Gilead-based dystopia, this isn’t quite what you’ll be expecting.
When the van door slammed on Offred’s future at the end of The Handmaid’s Tale, readers had no way of telling what lay ahead for her–freedom, prison or death.
With The Testaments, the wait is over.
Margaret Atwood’s sequel picks up the story more than fifteen years after Offred stepped into the unknown, with the explosive testaments of three female narrators from Gilead.
Before you enter their world, you might want to arm yourself with these thoughts:
Knowledge is power.
History does not repeat itself, but it rhymes.
I’m going to try and not include too many spoilers for those who haven’t read it, which is going to be tricky. This is mostly because one of the most surprising and effective twists in this book happens very early on, and that is identifying who one of the narrators is – a twist that should have been obvious but still caught me by surprise.
The book is split into three different points of view which alternate each chapter – all women who are involved with or have been affected by the Gilead regime in some way. Interestingly, none of them are handmaids. I really liked this decision for two reasons: firstly, we were given many visceral and disturbing details about the handmaids in Atwood’s first book, therefore hearing perspectives from the other roles within that society (and one outside of it) was fascinating; secondly, alongside the fact that I’m pretty sure there wasn’t a single piece of dialogue uttered by a handmaid in the entire novel, this silence of arguably the most oppressed demographic within Gilead was deeply chilling and emphasised their lack of voice within society as a whole. At the start, I did find it slightly confusing to work out who the different voices were, as Atwood refers to them as “witness testimonies” or “holographs”. Their names are introduced soon enough and this stopped being an issue almost immediately.
“Dear Readers: Everything you’ve ever asked me about Gilead and its inner workings is the inspiration for this book. Well, almost everything! The other inspiration is the world we’ve been living in.”Margaret Atwood
The book dives us headfirst back into the horrifying (but perhaps not so unbelievable) oppressive regime of Gilead, where a totalitarian, theocratic government rule, fertile women are institutionally raped as a response to the falling birth rates and rebellion is punishable by death or mutilation. Cheery. Despite having read the first book around six years ago, I was surprised by how much I remembered about the details of this dystopian world. This is most likely aided by the successful television adaptation and subsequent use of handmaids and their distinct red costumes as modern-day symbols, in a time of growing government restrictions of female reproductive rights in the US.
The main difference between TT and The Handmaid’s Tale (THT) is the style of writing: the first book was written on the back of the post-modern era and became famous for its stream-of-consciousness style, capturing the voice of an extremely intelligent yet increasingly isolated and tortured character, Offred. She is an oppressed handmaid who appears obliging on the outside, yet via her recordings, the reader is given an insight into her rebellious, indignant, “don’t let the bastards grind you down” mindset she hides from the spies and rulers that surround her. TT’s narration style is still first-person, but much more straightforward. Apart from the occasional flashback, the narration remains in chronological order and reads as three people merely telling their side of the story. This may be disappointing for some readers, however I felt it suited the book well. TT is set around fifteen years after the first novel and in contrast, we see Gilead at a point where its power is declining rather than in the height of its power. The narration in THT created a claustrophobic effect, which suited Offred’s situation. In TT, the narration feels like three confessions and witness accounts, almost as if Gilead itself has been put on trial.
Despite its differences, Atwood still provides plenty of new Gilead details which continue to surprise the reader, and don’t worry, it’s still incredibly bleak – one moment involving a handmaid’s traumatic birth, described by a child in the house, was particularly harrowing. It was also interesting to gain a perspective of the wider politics of Gilead, including an insight into the relationships it has with other countries (poor Canada dealing with their rowdy neighbours yet again).
Overall, I don’t have much to say about this book that isn’t glowing praise – so why the 4 star review? This book was thoroughly enjoyable and allowed me to return to a fascinating (and utterly depressing) world that holds a mirror up to our own society. The characters all had their own unique voices and each perspective was as strong as each other. However, I guess perhaps I can’t help but compare it to THT, a book that was so pivotal for seventeen-year-old me, discovering feminist, dystopian and post-modern fiction for the first time as I read it in my A Level class with my favourite all-time teacher, dissecting every image and moment. TT felt more straightforward, and in some ways, less impressive. My rating is definitely biased by this being a sequel (if THT had never existed and this were a stand-alone book, it would have probably scored full marks), nevertheless, the two books together are perhaps some of the most important pieces of fiction written in the last century. Increasingly, we are seeing events and policies in today’s society that are not too dissimilar to Atwood’s dystopian nightmare. These books serve to warn us about what can happen if we vote the wrong people in, and remain complicit in the discrimination of others.