The Testaments: A Novel
“While The Testaments drops some of its political threads, it’s a wonderfully-written, absorbing novel. The events are genuinely intriguing, and Atwood’s style is reliably masterful. In a flooded market of dystopian fiction, The Testaments stands firmly upon its literary roots, readable and elegant.”
Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel The Handmaid’s Tale has been adapted for stage, for film (1990) and radio, and in 2017, became a television series now wrapping up its third season. The image of veiled handmaids, fertile women kept as reproductive slaves by a religious elite in near-future America, has for 34 years been the faceless face of feminist anxiety.
Atwood’s announcement of a sequel was understandably greeted with critical anxiety. We live in an age of sequels, and they’re generally disappointing re-hashes of material to generate profit without artistic innovation.
The Testaments is better than the fear it generated. It takes place 16-ish years after The Handmaid’s Tale, and it maintains Handmaid’s narrative trope of surviving documents being assessed centuries after the fall of Gilead, a religious dystopia on the American eastern seaboard. But where Handmaid offered a single narrative (that of Offred, the titular Handmaid), The Testaments, as its name suggests, blends several accounts.
The first and most powerful is that of Aunt Lydia, the terrifying enforcer of Gilead’s sexual mores. Lydia’s covert memoir carries the tension of a document produced within a society where women are absolutely forbidden from writing. Her record is a palpable threat both to those around her and to the unwary reader: “I pride myself on the fact that I can keep one jump ahead of you. But why only one? Several. Topple me and I’ll pull down the temple.”
The other two narratives are clearly paired, tagged “Transcript of Witness Testimony 369A” and “Transcript of Witness Testimony 369B.” 369A is a daughter of the Gilead elite. Her account begins in ambivalence, suggesting an enormous gap between her childhood and her present: “You have asked me to tell you what it was like for me when I was growing up within Gilead. You say it will be helpful, and I do wish to be helpful. . . . I hope you will remember, too, that we all have some nostalgia for whatever kindness we have known as children, however bizarre the conditions of that childhood may seem to others.”
369B initially seems bizarrely distant from her narrative companion. She is a teenager living outside Gilead, protected by funky, activist parents. Her story emphasizes layers of deception and uncertainty regarding her own identity: “I’ll start just before my birthday, or what I used to believe was my birthday. Neil and Melanie lied to me about that. . . . Keeping up my anger was difficult, though, because by that time they were dead.”
The link between the two girls is crucial to the novel’s plot. The Gileadan daughter refuses marriage and joins the Aunts. The Canadian girl’s parents are murdered by Gilead-employed terrorists. Forced from their ordinary lives, they find themselves on intersecting paths masterminded by a mysterious spy-master.
Handmaid is a master class in patriarchy. It scrutinizes the misogyny underlying modern (or then-modern, but, really, still-modern) American gender discourse. It’s in this sense, at the level of political insight, that The Testaments doesn’t stand up as a sequel. The Testaments is a primer on patriarchy, showing how girls are indoctrinated into it and how adult women become complicit in its maintenance. The novel re-emphasizes that cooperation with patriarchy may be a survival tactic but offers little else.
If anything, The Testaments feels old-fashioned in ways that The Handmaid’s Tale oddly doesn’t. The Gilead’s daughter’s story echoes Atwood’s frankly better The Blind Assassin (2000), which takes place primarily in the 1920s and ’30s. Both accounts are essentially the same: tales of wealthy white families with relatively straightforward gender roles in which women suffer spiritually even as their bodies are nurtured and apparently protected.
In stark contrast, Lydia’s story offers insight into how women who thought they had extricated themselves from patriarchy might find themselves compromised by it. What motivates an intelligent, educated woman to become an enforcer in a system of sexual slavery? Lydia side-steps that question in favor of an account that explores her place in Gilead’s power structure. She reveals how she has manipulated the women around her and her male “handler” to establish a domain in which she maintains at least the illusion of independence.
While The Testaments drops some of its political threads, it’s a wonderfully-written, absorbing novel. The events are genuinely intriguing, and Atwood’s style is reliably masterful. In a flooded market of dystopian fiction, The Testaments stands firmly upon its literary roots, readable and elegant.