When the van door slammed on Offred’s future at the end of The handmaid’s tale, readers had no way of telling what lay ahead. With The testaments, the wait is over. Margaret Atwood’s sequel picks up the story more than 15 years after Offred stepped into the unknown, with the explosive testaments of three female narrators from Gilead.
Try this: Only read Aunt Lydia's sections, flipping quickly past the character-as-mouthpiece young women. You'll get an interesting sidebar to the amazing The Handmaid's Tale. Aunt Lydia's story is, in fact, better than the original book.
I'll only get yelled at if I say more so that's it.
Knowing what an impact The Handmaid's Tale the novel has had, and having fairly fresh in my mind just how powerful and disturbing and relevant the TV series felt, it was hard not to have high expectations of this sequel. Which is too bad, because...
Well. It's not a bad book, to start with. I'm not sure Atwood is capable of writing a bad book. The writing in his one flowed along nicely, and it was an engaging enough read. The plot isn't much, but the depictions of life in Gilead are always interesting, in their own depressing way.
But it's impossible not to feel like it ought to have been something more. That there ought to be a lot of new things for this sequel to say to us, in this world we're living in today. But mostly it just all felt... familiar. More of the same. Readable enough, yes. But powerful? Not really.
I suppose it does try to say some interesting things about complicity and collaboration and the possibility of bringing down the system from the inside, with what it does with the character of Aunt Lydia. But none of it feels particularly deep, I'm afraid. And while this version of Lydia is interesting... Well, I almost feel bad saying it, but I think I find the version from the TV series more so.
Rating: It's hard to know how to rate this, because it's almost impossible to divorce the reality of it from the expectation. And maybe divorcing the two isn't really the right thing to do, anyway. With that in mind, I'm giving it a 3.5/5.
I was nervous when this book was announced. I couldn't help but wonder if this book had been produced by the sort of pressures that come with having a hugely successful show, rather than the passion of an artist with a story to tell. Would it let me down? And how could it possibly live up to the first novel, which was a life-altering experience for me?
But I need not have feared. This isn't The Handmaid's Tale come again, but rather, more satisfyingly, the story of Gilead that we need today. Atwood neatly and deftly ties together both books and the Hulu series, though one needn't necessarily have seen the show to appreciate this book.
I am tired but wholly satisfied.
We have the story of Aunt Lydia, pretty much the leader of women in Gilead and the most powerful of the Aunts. There is also the tale of Agnes, a young woman growing up in Gilead who is at marrying age and not at all wanting to be wed! And finally, there is Daisy, a young lady living in Canada, Gilead's uneasy neighbor to the north. The three stories become intertwined and eventually also link up with Offred's story.
I liked this read, and I was glad it didn't sully the brilliance of the first novel. If anything, it added to it by fleshing out what like was like in Gilead, what happened as it was founded, and what factors led to its undoing. Atwood expertly tells the tale from all three perspectives in this book, and now we have four stories of this horrible country. A country that seems all too real in this age of Trump and his cronies that continue to degrade and belittle women at any and all opportunities. I hope his downfall is as swift and complete as the men of Gilead!
In particular, this new volume focuses on three women: Aunt Lydia, the most powerful female figure in the Gilead hierarchy; Agnes Jemima, the young daughter of a mid-level Commander; and Daisy, a teen-aged girl living in Canada whose past will soon connect her to the other two. The nation is crumbling, done in by the ongoing corruption and oppressive actions of its leaders. Nevertheless, those in power are desperate to hang on and they are becoming increasingly ruthless in their behavior. Aunt Lydia is actually working covertly to bring about the regime’s demise, keeping a secret journal of the many transgressions she has witnessed (and taken part in herself). It is the complicated scheme she launches to bring her writings to light that gets the three women together and gives the novel its dramatic tension.
Of course, the danger in producing a sequel to such a revered and influential book—especially more than three decades later—is extending the story in a way that readers will view as disappointing or ineffectual. Fortunately, that is simply not a problem with The Testaments, which I found to be an extremely satisfying end to the Gilead saga. Atwood’s writing continues to be effective and affecting, taking the reader right back into the cloistered world of that sinister society. She also adopted a much wider viewpoint in this novel, telling the story from three alternating points of view, none of which being that of a Handmaid as in the earlier work. The Handmaid’s Tale remains one of the best books I have read and this one is not too far behind on that list.
Made into a Hulu series, The Handmaid's Tale has reached new generations, both on the screen and on the written page. That first book took us to Gilead, a regime where men ruled, women were chattel and handmaids were there to breed. All under the umbrella of religion.
Fifteen years have passed when The Testaments opens. There are three narratives. I as quite surprised to see that Aunt Lydia (if you've read The Handmaid's Tale, you'll know who this is) is the primary voice. "But among these bloody fingerprints are those made by ourselves, and these can't be wiped away so easily. Over the years I've buried a lot of bones; now I"m inclined to dig them up again - if only for your edification, my unknown reader." And turned what I had thought about this character upside down.
There are two other testaments - that of Witness 369A and Witness 369B - both young women from different sides of the 'border' - one living in Gilead, one safe in Canada. "We were the beneficiaries of the sacrifices made by our forebears. We were constantly reminded of this, and ordered to be grateful. Bbut it's difficult to be grateful for the absence of of an unknown quantity."
How those narratives weave together and what will happen will keep readers up late at night. And as more and more is revealed and the underlying plan becomes visible, I couldn't put the book down. And, as I don't want to provide any spoilers, I'll leave it at that. But suffice to say, I loved it.
Atwood's imagining of such a world is not so far fetched. I leave you with this....:Atwood reiterated that "each detail is plucked from reality" so nothing she wrote has not occurred already, whether it be in this climate or previously before." Scary huh?
The most important and interesting chapter IMHO is the last chapter which takes place at an academic conference of Gileadean studies in in 2197. It discusses the testimonies of two girls, Daisy/Nicole and Agnes and the Ardua Hall Holograph written by Aunt Lydia.
These three “testaments” form the bulk of the narrative of the life and times inside and outside of Gilead.
Each testament provides details of each person’s life as they maneuver their way through Gilead or outside (Daisy). Women and girls are streamed into Handmaids for procreation, Marthas for slave labour, Pearl girls for indoctrination and Aunts for management. Men of course are in charge as Commanders, Eyes are spies.
Aunt Lydia does a good job of describing the corruption, incompetence, depravity and homicide of various classes of people.
With the exception of Aunt Lydia, I found the character development to be one dimensional, the dialogue flat and the outcome simplistic.
Aunt Lydia is cunning, evil, manipulative and treacherous. We soon determine that she is a double agent working with Mayday to destroy Gilead.
I do not recommend
What it is, however, is closure. For all of us who have yearned to know what happened - did she make it out - did Gilead ever fall - The Testaments brings answers to our questions. And it does so as a strong, engaging, fascinating work of fiction.
Atwood uses three voices to tell Gilead's continuing story, and while I found them all engaging, the voice of the Aunt was the most compelling for me. I found this novel to be a quick read - I was entirely engaged from page one, and didn't want to put it down until I had reached the end.
I think, for those of us who have loved this novel over the years, The Testaments will be satisfying. It doesn't reach the same levels as some of Atwood's previous work, but it is still a solid and welcome work of fiction.
The narrative is split between three characters: a pampered* daughter of Gilead; a self-absorbed Canadian teenager who may as well have "Chosen One" flashing above her in neon; and Aunt Lydia, that ruthless torturer from The Handmaid's Tale.
Aside from Aunt Lydia's story, The Testaments reads like YA dystopian at its absolute worst, with two narrators who question almost nothing, and who drift through their lives on a sea of implausible coincidence.
The Testaments worst gaffe is giving facile answers to the questions we were left with in The Handmaid's Tale; question which, in most cases, didn't need to be answered.
What keeps me from totally dismissing this one is Aunt Lydia's tale. Learning her backstory and seeing her navigate her way to a position of power is fascinating. And it's in this section we are given another horrifying literary villain in Commander Judd, a nightmarish cross between Bluebeard and Humbert Humbert. However, it feels like Atwood got bored writing the most interesting part of the book and didn't think it necessary to allude to any sort of motivation for Lydia's final actions.
I won't say I was let down by The Testaments because I didn't really have any expectations for it, but I will say that it's kind of sad that Atwood took thirty-odd years to come up with something so mediocre.
*Well, as pampered as any female in Gilead can be.
Aunt Lydia’s story and narrative voice were by far the best part of this novel. Readers learn her back story and see how her rise to power fostered the cruelty and cunning on display in The Handmaid’s Tale. I never would have expected her to become a sympathetic figure, but indeed she does. Lydia, a founding Aunt in Gilead, has seen a thing or two and learned the art of subversion in order to survive. The other two women are much younger than Lydia, born after Gilead’s formation. For them, there is no “before,” and little ability to imagine a world where Gilead doesn’t exist. But their stories sometimes stretched the bounds of credibility, and the pacing felt rushed as the novel hurtled towards its dramatic conclusion. Nonetheless, The Testaments makes for great reading and serves as a sobering reminder of how easily a society can go horribly wrong.
I was quite excited to read it, and got swept up in it straight away. I really liked Aunt Lydia's narrative, and was intrigued enough by the other two perspectives to want to know more. We find out more about the workings of Gilead, and also learn how Aunt Lydia got to where she is. There are a few references to the specific events of The Handmaid's Tale early on, but if I hadn't watched the show relatively recently they probably would've passed me by!
The build-up to the climax is pretty breathless, and doesn't have the detail or nuance of the earlier sections, so I sped through it very quickly. I was satisfied by the ending, but would've liked a few more reflective passages/reactions from those involved - there's a lot of action and not much opportunity for thought.
Still, this is a good sequel that I enjoyed immensely, and much preferable to what I saw of S2 of the show (even though the timelines are different). There are some beautiful bits of writing in the first two-thirds of the book or so, but I felt their lack towards the end.
Those who have read (or watched) The Handmaid’s Tale.
In a nutshell:
We know that Gilead eventually fell. But how?
“The truth can cause a lot of trouble for those who are not supposed to know it.”
“Another girl’s disgrace could rub off on you if you got too close to it.”
“They said calm things like ‘You need to be strong.’ They were trying to make things better. But it can put a lot of pressure on a person to be told they need to be strong.”
Why I chose it:
I read The Handmaid’s Tale a few years ago, and have watched two seasons of the show (I live in the UK and can’t figure out how to watch season three).
This book is told from the perspective of three people: Aunt Lydia; a daughter of a Commander (Agnes); and a teenager living in Canada (Daisy). Each have different experiences of Gilead - Aunt Lydia helped create the way women experience it, Agnes is being raised to become a child bride to a Commander and is fully steeped in the Gilead belief system, and Daisy has parents who are helping fight Gilead from afar.
Aunt Lydia’s section includes the story of how she became involved in Gilead, and I found her sections the most interest to ponder from an ethics perspective. What would each of us do in those situations? Some will fight to survive so they eventually fix things, some will fight to survive so they can acquire some power in the new word; others will see no possible option except to fight until their own death.
I also found Agnes’s sections fascinating. We don’t get the perspectives of the children in the first book (that I can recall), so I appreciated learning a bit about how it all worked in practice. Daisy’s story was the least interesting to me, but her chapter were still compelling.
The writing in this is excellent as expected (the Schlafly Cafe made me lol), and while I think this is a satisfying book and even a necessary one, it didn’t quite match my hopes. But my hopes were quite high.
Keep it / Pass to a Friend / Donate it / Toss it:
Now, I've just finished The Testaments and was drawn into the story from page one. It just clicked and I wonder how I had missed the sharp narrative and wit that alluded me in The Handmaid's Tale . Surely, it must be there too!
Readers of The Handmaid's Tale had years and years to stew about what came after and with The Testaments, Atwood provides what may or may not work for today's readers but for this one, it did and a reread of Handmaid's Tale is a must for me.