I first read The Handmaid’s Tale when I was 17 / 18 years old. I was studying for my A-Levels at the time, and had completed an essay comparing 1984 and Brave New World – an essay that I maintain to this day is the single greatest piece of work that I’ve ever produced. I asked my teacher for other, similar novels to read – these two novels started my love of dystopian fiction – and one of his suggestions was The Handmaid’s Tale. I was blown away by it. To have a sequel, to be able to return to this world, is nothing short of amazing, and The Testaments more than lives up to expectations.
More than fifteen years after the events of The Handmaid’s Tale, the theocratic regime of the Republic of Gilead maintains its grip on power, but there are signs it is beginning to rot from within. At this crucial moment, the lives of three radically different women converge, with potentially explosive results.
Two have grown up as part of the first generation to come of age in the new order. The testimonies of these two young women are joined by a third voice: a woman who wields power through the ruthless accumulation and deployment of secrets.
As Atwood unfolds The Testaments, she opens up the innermost workings of Gilead as each woman is forced to come to terms with who she is, and how far she will go for what she believes.
Dear Readers: Everything you’ve ever asked me about Gilead and its inner workings is the inspiration for this book. Well, almost everything! The other inspiration is the world we’ve been living in.
The Testaments, while set in the same oppressive world, is quite different to The Handmaid’s Tale. Here, the reader is presented with three separate testimonies regarding the Republic of Gilead – an aunt, a commander’s daughter, and a young woman living in Canada. All female, they are all deemed inferior by the Republic of Gilead, and give very different views and perspectives on what it is like to live in those circumstances.
I’ve always considered the aunts of Gilead to be traitors to women. How could a woman force other women to endure what the handmaids go through? Of course, they have little choice in the matter – they are as much prisoners to the regime as other women – but the iron grip with which they keep the handmaids in line seems entirely unsympathetic to my mind. For this reason, the aunt’s testimony is particularly interesting. I loved seeing the background as to how the aunts were selected – rather different to Offred’s story of becoming a handmaid, yet in no way pleasant – and came to understand how they were coerced into the role. I loved reading about her small acts of rebellion. Nothing overt, and nothing that would raise concerns in the eyes of the commanders, but the slow gathering of information that may be useful to her. It cast this character in a very different light, and I felt more sympathetic towards her, and some of the other aunts, than I have done previously.
The Testaments also shares the view of a young girl, then woman, who grew up as the daughter of a commander. This is a fascinating testimony, and shows what and how these girls are taught. It is, frankly, shocking. It’s easy to believe that the wives and daughters of the commanders have it better than the handmaids – they aren’t subjected to the monthly ceremonies in quite the same way after all. But, with women deemed inferior to men, their weaker brains unable to cope with anything beyond a little interior design, petit point, and household management, they have little freedom, nor the opportunity for hobbies with which to occupy their time. They are not taught to read. I enjoyed seeing this character develop over the course of the novel. Indoctrinated from a young age, it was pleasing to see her begin to question the propaganda and the way in which things are done in Gilead. Smart enough to keep such thoughts to herself, hers is a compelling account from a very different perspective to those given by Offred in the original novel, and to the aunt’s perspective captured in this novel.
I don’t want to say too much about the third perspective in the novel, but this is told from a different angle as we see a young woman in Canada, taught about Gilead in school, but for whom it’s a distant horror. Until it isn’t.
The Testaments is an outstanding novel, and one which will satisfy those readers who’ve been hoping for a follow up for some time. It pays homage to the TV adaptation as well as Atwood’s 1985 novel, giving very different perspectives on what it’s like to live under such a regime, and is as shocking and thought-provoking as you would expect. Absolutely brilliant. Praise be.