2019 has been a major year for pop culture events. We saw the end of an era when Endgame came out and, a couple of weeks ago, Margaret Atwood brought out the sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale. Yep, some 34 years after Atwood’s groundbreaking feminist dystopian novel, we are back in Gilead. One of the most ridiculous things I’ve ever read on Buzzfeed (and let’s be honest, there’s a lot) was a girl complaining that we never knew what happened to Offred. What is this weird obsession that everyone has with closure? Why do we expect our stories to have an ending? Because let’s face it, we don’t have an ending for most of the people we encounter in our lives. Yes, we know the ultimate ending for everyone who is ever born but think of all the people you’ve met in your lifetime. How many of their stories do you know? And, let’s not forget that it’s a dystopian novel. People disappear all the time. Not finding out what happened to Offred fits with the genre. But, despite all of this ranting, I was obsessed as soon as it was announced that a sequel was coming. Who didn’t get excited? It’s Margaret freaking Atwood. And despite telling myself that I wasn’t going to buy it, I picked up a copy the day after it was released. I couldn’t help myself.
35 years ago, The Handmaid’s Tale seemed like a terrifying piece of speculative literature. The patriarchal society of Gilead was a monstrous example of power getting out of control. It was close enough to real-life to make people think but still fictional enough to not set alarm bells ringing. But modern life has moved on a lot in 35 years. We face a society that is growing closer to Atwood’s world than we could ever have expected. And with the HBO adaptation proving to be popular, it seems the need to provide a sequel proved too strong to ignore. So, in The Testaments, Atwood takes us back to Gilead a full 15 years after we last saw Offred being stuffed into the back of a van.
Gilead is much the same as we remembered but we see that corruption at the higher levels has grown eve worse. We hear the sad tale of Baby Nicole, a baby who was smuggled out of the country by her Handmaid mother. So, at least those wondering what happened to Offred and her unborn child can finally have that closure. Turns out that Mayday and the Female Railroad have been fairly successful at smuggling women out of the country but the loss of Baby Nicole changed Gilead. The child became a symbol for everything that it holds dear and everything the outside world wants to corrupt. Agents are attempting to track down mother and baby to bring one to justice and the other to her rightful home.
The Testaments, like its predecessor, is told through a series of discovered accounts. The first is Aunt Lydia who is writing her memoir in secret. The second is Agnes, a girl who has grown up in Gilead believing everything she was told. Finally, we hear from Daisy, a teenager living in Canada who hates everything that Gilead stands for. As the narration moves back and forth between the voices it becomes obvious how they are connected but it’s still quite the journey getting there. The three separate women’s experiences give us much more insight into Gilead and the outside world than we got in the first novel. We see behind the scenes of the Aunt’s regime, we see what life is like for women not chosen as Handmaids, and we get a chance to see the world’s reaction to the Gileadean rule. Atwood really does take her time to extend her world and it’s as rich and terrifying as it was the first time.
The first novel was supposed to warn against giving away power too readily. It was a speculative look at what would happen if unscrupulous people took advantage of religious texts to gain power over society. It was written at a time where women were still worse off but it still seemed like a distant possibility. The Testaments comes at a time where more and more women are having to fight for the rights to their own body and make their own choices. As such, the novel offers a much more feminist and empowering story. We see more bonds of sisterhood and a hidden strength that has endured in the most unlikely of places. If the first novel was a warning, the second is a call to rebellion.
As such, the novel has a much more positive feeling than The Handmaid’s Tale. Don’t get me wrong, there is still plenty of awful things to behold and some truly haunting imagery. I guess it just feels a bit too fairy tale in places. It’s as if Atwood was so fed up with real-world news that she simply wrote this to give us all hope. Which is fine but, especially considering I’ve literally just read the previous book, it feels like we’ve gone from one extreme to the other. The writer certainly pulls no punches but it doesn’t quite feel the same. It’s like the first novel has been diluted a little too much so you can only just taste it. The first novel inspired so many young women; I can’t see The Testaments having the same impact. For one thing, I’m not sure there’s as much room here to interpret the novel as you want. It feels more preachy than its predecessor.
For another, you never quite care about the central characters as much as you did about Offred. The emotional impact isn’t quite the same and there is less ambiguity about her fate. You followed Offred and experienced her pain with her. These three accounts are much less compelling and, though they all have horrible experiences, it never cuts you quite as deeply. Maybe because the novel was trying to do so much. Though it doesn’t directly follow on from the HBO show, the novel has taken aspects of that into account. We also see Atwood answering some of her most frequently asked questions. Maybe the need to please so many people took its toll?
But that’s not to say this wasn’t an enjoyable read. Atwood is one of the greatest writers around and her prose is as beautiful and engaging as it always has been. There are some astute and memorable passages that will make you rethink everything you ever believed. It might not be as impactful but she still has the ability to turn the world on its head. I rushed through this book because I was engaged with the story. Was it obvious where it was going from the start? Yes, but I don’t think Atwood intended to keep her intentions a secret. This was a novel that she wanted to write to free the world of tyrannical Gileadean rule. And, whilst it will never compare, I have no regrets in reading it.