By Margaret Atwood
Chatto & Windus/ Hardcover/ 419 pages/ $43.32/ Major bookstores
“History does not repeat itself, but it rhymes,” observes a character in The Testaments, the long-awaited sequel to Margaret Atwood’s seminal 1985 novel The Handmaid’s Tale.
Atwood, the Canadian grande dame of feminist dystopia, does not repeat herself here, but has produced a tour de force that, while fresh, provides a deft counterpoint to its predecessor.
The Testaments, more than 30 years in the making, was shortlisted for the Booker Prize even before its release and has already been picked up for a Hulu screen adaptation, as was The Handmaid’s Tale.
It was so ferociously embargoed that copies were only made available at midnight Sept 10, barring some 800 copies that Amazon erroneously shipped early last week. Hackers besieged Atwood’s agency for months trying to get hold of the manuscript.
The Testaments, set 15 years after The Handmaid’s Tale, has not the iconic blaze of its predecessor, though it certainly builds on that reputation. But has it been worth the hype? Absolutely.
The testaments of the title are by three women. One, Agnes Jemima, is a girl growing up in the totalitarian Republic of Gilead; another, Daisy, was raised across the border in Canada by liberal parents, but is connected to Gilead in ways she is unaware of. The discerning reader can easily guess what relationship these two girls have with each other, as well as with Offred, the eponymous narrator of The Handmaid’s Tale.
The third narrator is a familiar face: Aunt Lydia, the terrifying administrator of the subjugation of women in Gilead, including the system of the Handmaids, in which fertile women are forced to bear children for the elite through ritualised rape.
Offred, the eponymous narrator of The Handmaid’s Tale, saw Aunt Lydia largely as a villain. Here, Atwood expands Aunt Lydia into a fascinatingly complex character, giving her a background as a family court judge, the kind of single, educated older woman who had everything to lose when Gilead rose.
She is recast as a survivor, albeit one who has survived through monstrous complicity and the ruthless sacrifice of others. “I am a great proponent of better,” she thinks, “in the absence of best. Which is how we live now.”
The paths of these three women converge in an irresistibly propulsive plot that reads at times like one of John Le Carre’s espionage thrillers – for there is a spy in Gilead – and is nigh impossible to put down.
As with The Handmaid’s Tale TV adaptation (2017 to present), The Testaments gives us a much broader insight into life in Gilead, from how high school drama might unfold when you and your classmates are being primed to be child brides, to the machinations of Ardua Hall, the sanctum of the Aunts, and the Pearl Girls, missionaries sent abroad to lure young women back to Gilead in a way eerily reminiscent of Isis bride recruiters.
The brutality of Gilead is very much in evidence, though Atwood does not harp on it in the gruesome fashion of the Hulu adaptation. Instead, she shows how much can be done with very little – the unseen horror of a Handmaid cut up to save the baby inside her is sketched in a few awful lines.
Atwood’s trademark wordplay is in fine form from the opening line: “Only dead people are allowed to have statues, but I have been given one while still alive. Already I am petrified.” Aunt Lydia’s dry wit proves a remarkable asset, as she delivers many of the book’s best lines. On the subject of pens, which no women except Aunts may use in Gilead, she says archly: “Not for nothing do we at Ardua Hall say ‘Pen Is Envy’.”
As Atwood herself has noted, the scenario of The Handmaid’s Tale has become even more disturbingly resonant in our present than when the book was first published. In contrast, The Testaments is far more conclusively hopeful than its ambiguous predecessor.
It might seem pat, but perhaps that is what is urgently needed now: an ode to resistance, a handing of the baton from an older generation to a younger one. Above all, a testament to the power of women who write.
If you liked this, read: The Power by Naomi Alderman (Penguin, 2016, $22.42, Books Kinokuniya), in which women around the world discover they have the power to deliver electric shocks, completely upending society’s gender roles.