The Testaments: The Sequel You Didn’t Know You Needed?


Margaret Atwood, 2019


You don’t believe the sky is falling until a chunk of it falls on you.

In many ways, The Testaments is the exact opposite of The Handmaid’s Tale. There, we were claustrophobically confined to one character’s limited viewpoint. Here, we move rhythmically between three different ones. There, we strained to glean every scrap of information we could about Gilead. Here, we are freely invited to see it from every angle, inside and out. There, we were stifled by slow-paced inaction. Here, the plot builds into a blockbuster escape heist. If one is a zoomed in shot of a human face, one is a dramatic zoom out, a sweeping aerial shot of an entire landscape with a few fires burning in the distance.

And, also – where there was once excruciating tension and heady atmosphere, now that tension and atmosphere is shakily built then shattered whenever the narrative shifts to a different viewpoint. Where there was once some of the most beautiful wordplay and use of language in 20th-century fiction, now that is all forgotten, except for the odd playful turn of phrase or dry, ironic statement.

So if The Handmaid’s Tale was such a classic, how can The Testaments, its antithesis, be a success?

Gilead had a long-standing problem, my reader: for God’s kingdom on earth, it’s had an embarrassingly high emigration rate.

When the Commander asked, ‘What would you like?’, Offred replied ‘I would like to know whatever there is to know.’ If she could have laid her hands on any book, it surely would have been The Testaments. It contains everything she was missing and longing for: action, information, detail, insight into areas of Gilead she wasn’t allowed to see. Thus, it fills in all the gaps that we as readers were also missing.

What do other modern nations think of Gilead? How does it interact with other states? Where do the Aunts live and what do they do, think and feel? What, in particular, is going on inside the cruel, twisted mind of Aunt Lydia? How were Aunts selected at the start of the regime and how are they selected 15 years into it? What is said in a meeting at the top level of Gilead governance? Children were so noticeably, ominously missing in The Handmaid’s Tale – what is life like for them in Gilead, as they grow into maturity? What do they think of the Handmaids? What is school like, and what about marriage? The Handmaids were told that the second generation would find it easier, not knowing what they were missing. Now, we get to see if that is true.

The Founders and the older Aunts had edges to them. They’d been moulded in an age before Gilead, they’d had struggles we had been spared […] We’d been protected, we hadn’t needed to deal with the harshness of the world at large. We were the beneficiaries of the sacrifices made by our forebears. We were constantly reminded of this, and ordered to be grateful. But it’s difficult to be grateful for the absence of an unknown quality. I’m afraid we did not fully appreciate the extent to which those of Aunt Lydia’s generation had been hardened in the fire. They had a ruthlessness about them that we lacked.

But are the answers to all these questions a long-awaited, thirst-quenching blessing, or are they superfluous, unneeded, unwanted even? Is it all a money-grabbing ploy? An action-packed, dialogue-heavy sequel to be placed directly into the hands of the screenwriters for the already-confirmed TV adaptation?

There are certainly those who think so. Emily May, the #1 most-followed reviewer on Goodreads, writes: ‘It’s an act of self-restraint to not say everything, to leave some things unanswered, some happy endings unexplored. That, I feel, is one of the greatest strengths of The Handmaid’s Tale. What we don’t know is powerful. Ambiguity is powerful. Knowing when to finish is powerful. I had so hoped this was going to do something new and important. I hoped it was going to impart a new message, perhaps relevant to modern times. I hoped it was going to be smart and thought-provoking. I am disappointed.’

The Evening Standard’s Johanna Thomas-Corr is embarrassingly accurate when she says that ‘overall the tone is unstable, lurching from tense confessional to Shakespearean lost-sibling farce. For all the blood, the atmosphere isn’t nearly as menacing as it was in The Handmaid’s Tale, where the boredom Offred endured in her bedroom was every bit as chilling as the bodies of traitors hanging from the Wall.’ The rather diplomatic remarks from the Independent’s Holly Williams, that ‘it solves some of the mysteries of Gilead rather than stoking them: whether that’s a good thing or not depends what you want from fiction’, do not help matters.

Giving up was the new normal, and I have to say it was catching.

Once you start pulling holes in something, the whole thing can quickly fall apart. Every previously positive aspect of the book reveals a dark, sinister side. Where I had once liked the structuring – the way it switched, reminiscent of A Song of Ice and Fire, between viewpoints every time things got juicy, keeping me turning pages – it now seemed specifically designed to be adapted into a gripping television show in much the same fashion as Game of Thrones. I had excused the fall in quality of the writing; after all, Offred specifically values words so much because they have been taken away from her, whereas Agnes has never known them, Nicole has never had them taken away, and Aunt Lydia has managed to retain hold of them. Admittedly, too, this ‘fall in quality’ was a fall from the sublime to the still really very good – and would a fresh, clean writing style be better than a shoddy imitation of former glory anyway? Now, however, suspicion began to take root: was the book’s less literary style a result of Gilead’s commercialisation, its recent mass appeal?

Atwood wisely left untouched the ambiguity surrounding Offred’s future, but her presence still pervades the novel. When reading, I was excited that the two young girls were Offred’s two daughters, but now I wonder whether this is too obvious a connection, the plot-line too TV-ready. The two girls, particularly Nicole, lack definition or distinction – are their characters ripe for young actresses to make their own? I liked that Offred remained in the shadows, even in the final moment when the three are reunited. The light touch seemed just right, but now even that seems over-sentimental, her line ‘My darling girls’ ludicrously twee in comparison to The Handmaid’s Tale’s intense portrayal of a mother’s pain and longing. One can almost hear the soaring soundtrack, see the muted colour palette and the sunlight coming in through the window.

Indeed, by serving as its foil, The Testaments has helped me appreciate The Handmaid’s Tale even more. What makes the latter so exceptional is the ordinariness of its main character. She is not brave, she is not a hero, an action-man, or a rebel. She knows nothing, she does nothing. She is not a Jeanine, causing a scene. She is not a Moira, stabbing her way out of a tight spot. She is not even an Ofglen, running ahead of the pack to kick in the head of the Mayday agent. She admits that she is a coward, afraid of pain, too scared to rebel. She asks us if we would have acted differently. She is passive; everything that happens in the plot happens to her. The Commander asks for her company and takes her to Jezebel’s, Serena Joy arranges her liaison with Nick, the van comes to pick her up without her knowledge. Even ‘joining Mayday’ consists only, for her, of whispering rumours with Ofglen.

So peaceful, the streets; so tranquil, so orderly; yet underneath the deceptively placid surfaces, a tremor, like that near a high-voltage power line. We’re stretched thin, all of us; we vibrate; we quiver, we’re always on the alert. Reign of terror, they used to say, but terror does not exactly reign. Instead it paralyzes. Hence the unnatural quiet.

Many reviewers have commented that the Aunt Lydia sections were their favourite. A book that was truly the antithesis of The Handmaid’s Tale would have been an atmospheric, intense, emotional, disturbing, detailed psychological portrait not of Offred, but her tormentor Lydia. The dark side of the moon.

If only I’d packed up early enough, as some did, and left the country – the country I still foolishly thought was the same as the country to which I had for so many years belonged.

Such regrets are of no practical use. I made choices, and then, having made them, I had fewer choices. Two roads diverged in a yellow wood, and I took the one most travelled by. It was littered with corpses, as such roads are. But as you will have noticed, my own corpse is not among them.

Can redemption be found, then, for a book which in so many ways epitomises everything that The Handmaid’s Tale avoided? Perhaps, if we see it through a new lens. In opening doors that were previously closed, platforming voices previously silent, setting in motion action previously repressed, The Testaments is less a Part 2 and more a Side B. An inversion, a flipside – with a distinct new purpose. Here I defer to Lisa from Goodreads:

‘Not much new was added to the dystopian plot of Gilead, I thought. But then a shift occurred in my mind. I always saw The Handmaid’s Tale as a warning of the slow normalisation of religious fanaticism and of the strengthening of patriarchal structures in our modern era, and the story itself as a mirror of our all too human tendencies to adjust to the most absurd situations if we are caught off-guard and left confused. The Testaments has a different purpose, and it comes as a challenge in the era of #MeToo. Don’t accept the unacceptable. Act on injustice. Speak up. Do what has to be done to make the world safer for women and children. Say no to the objectification of your body. No tyranny will last forever if you are brave enough to do your individual bit.’

Read this way, Atwood’s mission becomes clear: she takes her creation, never more popular than now, and gives the latent spirit inside in an electric shock. Writing The Testaments (whose release was surrounded by a secrecy not seen since the Harry Potter era, its physical manuscripts transported with fake titles after its publishers were hacked) is as close as an author can get to addressing the world. The time for passivity is over. This is a hopeful reminder that resistance is always possible and regimes will always fall – all the quicker if those inside them take a risk.

This was what the Aunts did, I was learning. They recorded. They waited. They used their information to achieve goals known only to themselves. Their weapons were powerful but contaminating secrets, as the Marthas had always said. Secrets, lies, cunning, deceit – but the secrets, the lies, the cunning, and the deceit of others as well as their own. All the secrets I had learned, and doubtless many more, would be mine, to use as I saw fit. All of this power. All of this vengeance.

And speaking of Harry Potter, The Guardian’s Anne Enright makes a particularly astute final point: ‘Gilead, the fiction, is a kind of overgrown child. Atwood has taken it by the hand and made an open, free-running story, one that remains, as ever, deeply informed. In writing The Testaments, she also reclaims its world from all the people who think they own it now: the writers of fanfiction and the television producers (she told them they could not kill Lydia, apparently). A story that feels universal is, actually, hers: she gets to decide […] Perhaps no other writer has managed her own phenomenon with so much grace and skill.’

To remain the absolute authority on one’s own wildly popular fictional creation is a harder task than it sounds. If The Testaments feels Hollywood-ready, then so be it: it’s exciting, fun and has turned its eyes from a bleak present to a hopeful future. Nevertheless, I close with perhaps the shrewdest comment of all, from Grumble’s Yard on Goodreads: ‘a lifetime achievement Nobel Prize would be a more appropriate recognition for the author than the Booker would be for this book.’

“If she sees you – dressed as Pearl Girls, as you will be – she will attempt to stop you. You must act quickly, before she can create a disturbance.”

“But what should we do?” I asked.

“You are strong,” said Aunt Lydia, looking at Nicole. “Strength is a gift. Gifts should be employed.”

“You mean I should hit her?” said Nicole.

“That is a very direct way of putting it,” said Aunt Lydia.

Read 14 – 15 September 2019

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