A man perceived by many to be a reactionary demagogue is sworn in to the office of the President. In Charlottesville, Virginia, a rally of far-right organizations parade through the streets with torches, and at least one counter-protester is killed. A number of frustrated young men radicalized by online misogyny and antifeminism have attacked and killed women for no other reason than they wouldn’t date them. All across the nation, people fear that recent additions to the highest judicial authority in the land will take away their reproductive rights, made even more culturally potent after credible claims of sexual assault have been levied against one of its newest members. The actions of a relatively small number of mostly white men threaten to undo decades of progress toward general equality, and to their minds they are actually leveling the playing field.
In other words, there was perhaps never a better time for Margaret Atwood to release a sequel to “The Handmaid’s Tale.”
Published in 1985, “The Handmaid’s Tale” is a dystopian novel set in the Republic of Gilead, a brutally repressive theocratic dictatorship that overthrows the United States government, imposing its religion on the population and ruthlessly exterminates those who dare to oppose them. In this new world order, a madman’s vision of God’s kingdom on Earth, women are strictly segregated into specific roles for the benefit of the men, known as Commanders, who run the new state. The “handmaids” of the title are women assigned to prominent couples who have failed to produce a child in order to act as a cross between a surrogate mother and a concubine.
The original novel followed a Handmaid named Offred, so called because the man she is assigned to is named Fred (she is literally “of-Fred”), as she seeks to maintain her dignity and her sanity against a world that, having taken pretty much everything else, now seeks to strip her of those things too. And all the while she hopes beyond hope that there is a way out of this.
The novel was a smash hit and made Margaret Atwood an international success. According to Atwood herself, this new novel was informed primarily by all the questions she received from readers about the world of “The Handmaid’s Tale,” as there is quite a bit about this world that the original novel does not cover. Atwood has not returned to this world for three and a half decades, and yet her command over her world is as fresh and original as it would have been if “The Testaments” had been written just a year after its prequel.
The new novel follows three perspectives that gradually converge over the course of the plot. The first takes the form of a secret diary written by Aunt Lydia, who is revealed to be the main architect behind the “women’s sphere” in the novel, the chief designer behind the roles of Wives, Aunts (the bureaucratic regulators of Gilead’s women), the Marthas (petty servants) and of course the Handmaids. Aunt Lydia is a collaborator in the regime that oppresses her entire gender, having felt no choice but to go along at literal gunpoint once it was far too late to resist, saying of her predicament that, “You don’t believe the sky is falling until a chunk of it lands on you” (p. 66).
Aunt Lydia is a demigoddess among the women of Gilead, like Mother Theresa crossed with Martin Luther with a splash of Joseph Smith for good measure. As such, she perhaps wields the most power of any woman in a nation literally built on women’s subjugation, especially in relation to Commander Judd, one of the leading men of the new nation who originally coerced her into this role. Throughout the novel Lydia finds many ways to empower herself and other women as best she can, an inclination that brings her into contact with the two other protagonists.
The second plot thread is the coming-of-age of a girl named Agnes. Like Lydia, Agnes lives in a position of relative comfort among Gilead’s women, being the daughter of a prominent Commander. The early Agnes chapters do much to flesh out great swathes of Gilead’s society, primarily by presenting it through the eyes of its most privileged women. For instance, it was established in “The Handmaid’s Tale” that being a Handmaid was nominally considered an honorable duty and a path to redemption for women who had sinned (Handmaids are often selected among women who had done things retroactively considered crimes by Gilead, such as abortion, prostitution or marrying a man with a living ex, such was the case with Offred) but through Agnes’s perspective, the opinion of most of Gilead’s indoctrinated women regarding Handmaids could be summed up with one word: sluts.
An early Agnes passage that rang frustratingly true relates the proper mannerisms of young Gilead girls, which is to say that they are taught to be as sexless and unprovocative as humanly possible in order to not inflame the urges of the men around them, who might otherwise harm them after even the slightest bit of prodding. In a society like today, where a deeply entrenched social psychology centered around victim-blaming, especially in cases of sexual assault (and even more especially on college campuses) this is the kind of passage that is really effective writing precisely because it uses an agonizing and controversial aspect of the real-world to color its fictional one. Agnes’s section is actually chock-full of such illuminating moments, as she relates the story of somebody who has lived her entire life in Gilead and truly believed, at least for a time, everything she was taught about the way things were “supposed to work,” until she slowly begins to suspect that all is not as it seems.
The third and final aspect of this story is the tale of a Canadian girl named Daisy who has grown up on the outside looking in on life in Gilead. Canada has become a go-to escape point for women fleeing the oppressive regime, with Aunt Lydia writing that “for God’s kingdom on Earth, it’s had an embarrassingly high emigration rate” (p. 112). Daisy has grown up inundated with stories of atrocities from her nation’s southern neighbor, and Canada is constantly bombarded with demands for the return of “Baby Nicole,” an infant girl stolen away to the Great White North by her Handmaid mother years ago, whose repatriation to Gilead has dominated every aspect of the new nation’s foreign policy to the point of a martyr-like obsession. Daisy has no great motivation to fight Gilead beyond attending student protests, but events beyond her control send her spiraling toward a confrontation with this new order as she becomes involved with the underground Mayday movement aimed at bringing down Gilead from within.
“The Testaments” does answer quite a few questions about the world Margaret Atwood has created, but I do think that it leaves some of the most interesting questions unanswered; such as who really are the Sons of Jacob? Where, when and how were they radicalized? Do they actually believe their own bullcrap? Or is this about a narcissistic lust for power over others justified by divine law? Of course, if Atwood had answered every question anybody ever had about her world, this book would be about four times as long and not nearly half as good.
For a novel that aims, and succeeds, at answering three and a half decades worth of questions from fans, “The Testaments” is remarkably pithy in its analysis of Gilead and its place in this new world. Most of the chapters are quite short, and I got through this book at a much faster pace than I thought I could, given its content. Margaret Atwood avoided a trap of which I’m not entirely sure she was aware: trying to satisfy everybody and tie up every single loose end.
Once the three point-of-view characters meet, the novel shifts seamlessly from an exploration of this world into an escape thriller, which had me trembling with trepidation with every page I turned, hoping beyond hope that there was a way out for the characters, always sure that on the very next page the agents of Gilead would catch them.
The only unfortunate aspect of this book is that I simply cannot recommend it on its own. You do have to read the first book to have the necessary context not just for the story itself, but also to understand Atwood’s purpose in writing this new book. Of course, considering the renaissance that “The Handmaid’s Tale” has experienced in the last few years, I’m quite sure that plenty of people have.
“The Testaments” represents the continuation of one of speculative fiction’s literary masterpieces. Only time will tell whether or not it reaches the same level of acclaim that its predecessor has, but for my money, this novel has proven to be a worthy successor to Atwood’s original classic when it could very well have just been a shameless tie-in for the Hulu original series. Instead, we have a focused, detailed and gripping analysis of a world gone mad with delusions of godliness and righteousness, a perspective more relevant now than it perhaps ever was when the original was released.
I give “The Testaments” four out of five stars.