I read The Testaments, the long- awaited sequel to Margaret Atwood’s, The Handmaid’s Tale and one of the joint winners of the 2019 Booker Prize vowing that I would cut the author some slack as sequels are seldom as compelling as their predecessors. Just think of Go Set A Watchman which was published decades after To Kill A Mockingbird, one of America’s most beloved classics and fell far short of the public’s expectations. One would have hardly imagined at the time of the publication of The Handmaid’s Tale in 1985 that the dystopian fantasy would end up being prescient of the current political turmoil.
With the rise of the Christian Right and the misogyny in general of all organized religions, the novel has turned out to be hugely prophetic. In fact, in political rallies you often see activists dressed in the red cloaks and white bonnets of handmaidens to protest bills that would restrict abortions. The handmaid’s costume has also become a powerful symbol of the Me Too movement. Many women showed up in Washington donning the habit in protest of the swearing- in of the Supreme Court Justice Kavanaugh.
The Handmaid’s Tale also resulted in a tremendously successful television series adaptation on Hulu ,which, incidentally, seems to have influenced the writing of the sequel. So Margaret Atwood had a lot to live up to and in spite of allowing for this latitude, I was still disappointed as the new novel which transports us once again into the totalitarian theocracy of the Republic of Gilead has an entirely different tone and structure from the original.
The Republic of Gilead portrayed in The Handmaid’s Tale was founded on a literal and fundamentalist interpretation of the Bible and emerged after the collapse of America in a society that witnessed a drop in fertility due to environmental reasons. Consequently, in this despotic society, women became prized for their fertility.
They were placed into strict classes with barely any prospects for mobility: the Wives or the spouses of the high-ranking commanders, the Marthas or servants, the Handmaids or former sluts forced into childbearing for other couples, the Pearl Girls or the missionaries, the Jezebels or the prostitutes, the Econowives or the wives of less wealthy and less powerful men, the Aunts or the moral guardians of the society who were the only women allowed to read and write and the most dehumanized of them all, the Unwomen or women like nuns and lesbians who could not perform any of the roles delegated by the patriarchy and were sent off to the colonies or forced labour camps where they died exposed to toxic levels of radiation.
Women were considered vessels and treated as chattel and often the Aunts and Wives were complicit in the oppression of their own gender. In the end and in their own way, both fertile and barren women were devalued and debased.
The Handmaid’s Tale is the story of one such woman told by a first person narrator threading together narratives from the past and the present. Offred, who has been stripped of her name and all her civil rights has forcibly been separated from her husband and daughter to become a reproductive surrogate. The Testaments picks up approximately 15 years after the end of The Handmaid’s Tale when the pregnant Offred gets into a van and goes either on the road to freedom or to be arrested for treason. The novel ends on a ambiguous note and a lot is left to the reader’s imagination.
In The Testaments, the separate stories or testimonies of three different women come together in a three part narrative. We have the first person account of Aunt Lydia whom we remember as the cruel matron and moral guardian of Gilead and whom we had seen only from Offred’s perspective. The vicious and dreaded aunt who trains and indoctrinates the future handmaids in the role of the narrator we least expect is a brilliant move by the author. “I control the women’s side of their enterprise with an iron fist in a leather glove in a woollen mitten…And I keep things orderly: like a harem eunuch..”, she quips.
We delve into her past and Gilead’s emergence through her diary entries which she is recording for posterity and understand some of the difficult and duplicitous choices she had to make, her interactions with the other founder aunts which involved a lot of scheming and backstabbing and how she eventually made her way to the top. She is the mastermind that sets in motion the downfall of Gilead.
We also have the accounts of two teenage girls; the story of Agnes Jemima, a girl who grew up in Gilead and Daisy a girl who grew up across the border in liberal Canada. Daisy is raised by overprotective adoptive parents who end up being murdered under mysterious circumstances. After their death, she gets involved in the resistance movement despite herself and travels to Gilead. Agnes is raised by a loving foster mother in Gilead who succumbs to an illness and dies and is miserable when her Dad remarries a disagreeable and cold woman. She is about to be married off to a commander but on discovering that her birth mother was a handmaid, she sets out on a new path.
Both girls are on a quest to find themselves and their paths cross with each other’s and that of Aunt Lydia’s. It is interesting to see the contrast between Gilead and the life across the border in Canada. Organizations from both countries are working to lure or rescue the girls across the border. The weakness in the narrative structure is the fact that both girls have such similar voices that I could barely distinguish the two of them till more facts became evident.
The book is an entertaining page turner but the shift from the dark claustrophobic tone and setting of the original to an action- packed Hollywood style entertainer is jarring and robs the original novel of its seriousness and sobering message. Many of the plot twists seem predictable and hackneyed such as the revelation of Baby Nicole’s identity and that of the mother of the two teenage girls. I don’t even have to worry about revealing spoilers as I could see them coming a mile away. Yes, the book is that shockingly predictable.
While The Handmaid’s Tale is a cautionary tale, The Testaments ends on a note of hope. Although it is heartening to know that resistance is always possible and that tyrannical regimes do collapse, some questions are best left unanswered, some tales best left untold. The Testaments doesn’t have the same bone chilling effect of its predecessor. The Handmaid’s Tale left me with a feeling of disquietude and despair. I shuddered with disgust and indignation. In short, I was shaken to the core.
The most frightening epiphany is that Gilead is not altogether dystopian.The story doesn’t feel dated or far-fetched. The novel is chillingly resonant in the current political climate characterized by the control of women’s bodies and reproductive rights. The character of the handmaid has crossed over from the realm of fiction to reality as symbol of dissent. Margaret Atwood is a brilliant writer. The Testaments is a well- written and absorbing read. I only wish she had left The Handmaid’s Tale as a stand alone novel. It would have been even more impactful and powerful like Orwell’s 1984.
Atwood has definitely shaken us out of our complacency that such events cannot transpire in our little worlds. Gilead exists in some pockets of society in every corner of the world. In some regions, women are banned from reading and writing; they are stripped of literacy, the ultimate instrument of empowerment. In other regions, they are not allowed to work, denied of their economic independence. All over the world, their bodies are objectified and subjected to violence, their voices silenced and stifled. In such an environment, things can escalate out of control in the blink of an eye. We only have to be reminded of Aunt Lydia’s ominous words:” You don’t believe the sky is falling until a chunk of it falls on you.”