The Testaments (2019): Margaret Atwood

★★★★

This was waiting under the tree at Christmas and, needless to say, I wolfed it down. In case you’ve missed the frenzy, this 2019 Booker Prize winning novel is the long-awaited sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale. Atwood’s 1985 modern classic was set in the dystopian near-future of Gilead (formerly the United States), where a crushing patriarchal structure, clothed in the guise of religious fanaticism, restricts women to a handful of social roles based on their age and rank. That first novel focuses on the Handmaids, fertile but ‘fallen’ women in an age where infertility is widespread, who are passed around elite ‘Commanders’ as broodmares to supply the ruling classes with children. The Handmaid’s Tale is as old as I am, but has recently been given new life by its adaptation into a TV series. Although I’ve only seen the first season so far, I should get myself up to date: Atwood is a consulting producer on the show and not only has she helped to create a richer, more complex world on screen, but she has drawn on aspects of the TV series for the new book. Delving deeper into Atwood’s world, this novel introduces us to three very different women, whose intertwined fates offer a glimmer of hope for Gilead’s future.

I should say that, if you want to get the most from the book, it’s best to come to it cold. Just read The Handmaid’s Tale, if you haven’t already, and then come straight to this (maybe via the TV series, if people think that adds useful background knowledge?). I’d avoid reviews and blog posts like this one until after you’ve read The Testaments. Not that I intend to give away wild spoilers, but it’s sometimes best to come to a story without any foreknowledge or preconceptions. And of course, spoilers will be welcome here in the comments, helping us to discuss aspects of the book. I’m particularly keen to hear from people who are up to date with the TV series, and can tell me whether that adds to the sum of canon knowledge. I suspect it does.

The first of our narrators has certainly earned her prominence on the back of the TV series. I don’t remember whether the formidable Aunt Lydia appears in the novel of The Handmaid’s Tale, but in the TV series she occupies a terrifying position as one of the founders of Gilead, a woman with the power of life and death over the Handmaids whom she and her fellow Aunts train. The Aunts are women who have sacrificed the chance of child-bearing and family life in return for a more subtle kind of power. They are the only women who can read and write, and they are involved in arranging marriages for elite Commander families, and training the daughters of those families to become ideal future Wives. Aunt Lydia stands at the head of this fearsome regiment, on close terms with the leading Commander Judd. She and her fellow founding Aunts – Helena, Vidala and Elizabeth – have helped to create the stifling society in which Gilead’s women linger. So why is Aunt Lydia now writing down her thoughts on stolen paper, risking everything in order to record her own actions and the sly struggles for power with her fellow founders? Why would such a woman risk exposure? Aunt Lydia has kept her place through seeming to know just enough to be useful – and actually knowing much, much more. But, when information is so precious, why risk giving it away?

Our second narrator, Agnes, allows us to see more of life within Gilead’s elite class. Her father, a Commander, is a distant presence but she has been raised with love by her mother Tabitha, whose early death leaves Agnes vulnerable to the jealousy of her father’s second Wife Paula. As a nubile girl of good family, Agnes is sure to be married off as soon as Paula can find a plausible husband. Through Agnes’s experiences and those of her friends at school – ‘school’ here being a place where girls learn to embroider, to be obedient, to sing hymns, keep a pretty home and be charming – we get a sense of what it’s like to grow up within this world. And, as Agnes herself says, it is not all bad. There is love in Gilead, even if the society has flaws. Most remarkably of all, there is hope.

For our third narrator, the restrictions of life in Gilead would seem absurd. Daisy is Canadian: a modern, loose-tongued, opinionated, robust young woman who has grown up with loving hippyish parents. Daisy is used to demonstrations against Gilead: the propaganda, the marches and the speeches. She even did a project in school on Baby Nicole, the Commander’s child (and Offred’s daughter) spirited out of Gilead by activists at the end of The Handmaid’s Tale. Gilead has always been a presence for Daisy, as it is for all her peers, especially now that the missionary Pearl Girls are being sent out to proselytise about the virtues of Gilead and to encourage converts and immigrants. But things are about to get unpleasantly personal, and Daisy will soon find that her own safety (and future) require her to learn more about Gilead than she ever thought would be necessary. Circumstances conspire to bring the three narratives of Daisy, Agnes and Aunt Lydia together into a single tightly-wounded strand of energy that, if directed the right way, might just have the power to bring down this dystopia once and for all.

I wonder what everyone else thought of the feel of the book? I was surprised to find it so optimistic. Of course, the shock I felt on first reading The Handmaid’s Tale has been worn away by familiarity. Gilead’s Handmaids, its rapes and ritualised slaughters, are now part of popular culture thanks to the TV series, which (as I understand) took matters to far greater, bloodier lengths than the novel ever did. But The Testaments presents three privileged narratives: Aunt Lydia, whose rank and power give her a freedom that most women can only dream of; Agnes, whose station gives her physical comfort, and whose fate opens up further opportunities; and Daisy, whose life has been one of liberty. We’re shielded from the deepest horrors of Gilead. More than that, this book stresses female solidarity in a way that surprised me, given that The Handmaid’s Tale showed us what happens when women fail to support and protect one another: Wife and Handmaid divided by their adherence to their social roles. But The Testaments is surprisingly positive. Even characters who should be tarred by their association with the regime turn out to surprise us with their masks and Machiavellianism. This is all absorbing and encouraging, but isn’t it all just a bit too easy? Would it really have been so simple for an elite Gilead girl to wriggle out of a marriage she didn’t want? And is it really necessary for Daisy to follow the arc that she does, given how incredibly dangerous it is for her? Why not some other Canadian girl? What if something had gone wrong? (Or is her significance perhaps the point – that, if something had gone wrong, Daisy’s identity would have guaranteed a huge diplomatic ruckus, bringing Gilead under scrutiny?)

It is a rich book, adding new facets to a world that has already become one of the most familiar literary dystopias. Atwood writes, as ever, with clarity and supple command, switching voices easily between her three distinctive narrators. And yet I wonder how rewarding the book would feel if we didn’t know The Handmaid’s Tale? Is it something that is more of a supplement than a standalone – a slightly indulgent expansion of a world rather than the incisive, shrewd and shocking approach of its slim predecessor? Now, don’t get me wrong. I enjoyed it. More than that: I devoured it. But what is its message? It doesn’t have the piercing indignation of The Handmaid’s Tale and its hopeful message – while welcome – perhaps counteracts some of Gilead’s poison. Atwood’s concepts have already been slightly neutered: Handmaids have become handy fancy-dress options, or shorthand costumes for protesters against the silencing and exploitation of women. In a way, The Testaments seems to suggest that, if Gilead is on the way out, and if the people we thought were its evil instigators maybe aren’t, then we don’t really have to worry about it after all. But we should worry. Because Gilead is a veiled threat, a picture of what our own world could become in the wrong hands.

On the other hand, there has to be some hope, surely (the second season of the TV show was criticised for being unremittingly bleak). And Atwood may feel that it’s time for our indignation to turn away from the fictional Gilead and towards the miscarriages of justice that we see in the real world. That’s a fair point. And, at the end of the day, I like a feel-good ending as much as the next person. I’m yet to decide how I feel about how the balance is achieved here, and I do think that Daisy’s story is a bit implausible – a young woman, protected at such cost only for her guardians to turn round and send her into the teeth of the wolf. But in general this has the hallmarks of a strong and worthy book: it makes you think, and it makes you draw parallels with the world around us. It can’t match The Handmaid’s Tale, but it’s unfair to demand that. The earlier book shook the world precisely because it was so new and daring and unprecedented. The Testaments doesn’t show Atwood on quite the same furious, scintillating form; but Atwood on three cylinders is still a damn sight better than many, many authors on four.

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