Gilead is many things to many people; terrifying, oppressive, safety, home, opportunity. In The Testaments, Margaret Attwood tells a story through three very different perspectives on the bleakly misogynistic Republic of Gilead. Agnes is a young woman raised in Gilead, devout and trusting, and maybe just a little confused by some of the messages she has grown up receiving. Daisy is another teenager but from a very different background; she has grown up in Canada, watching the horrors and injustices of Gilead unfolding from a safe distance. Our last narrator comes to us not just from within Gilead’s walls, but from the very heart of the regime. Aunt Lydia has achieved a position of considerable power and influence, especially for a woman, and seems prepared to make some kind of confession to her unknown future reader. She tells us, “I’ve made it my business to know where the bodies are buried.” And she’s about to tell us where we can dig them up, assuming we can believe a word she says.
The Testaments is a sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale, the eerily prescient dystopian novel by Margaret Atwood, first published in 1985, and more recently adapted for television. Although set in the same world, just fifteen years later, The Testaments strikes a very different tone to that of its predecessor. Where The Handmaid’s Tale was restricted by its point of view character, a Handmaid with little to no freedom, the multiple perspectives of The Testaments opens up the story considerably and removes a lot of the claustrophobia of its prequel.
The earlier sections of the story are largely concerned with answering the question of how these separate points of view are going to relate to each other, particularly the two younger characters of Daisy and Agnes. Their attitudes and beliefs are almost precise opposites, but they also have some key things in common; a lingering uncertainty over their family lives, and a keen awareness of how little control they have over their own lives.
They both have their flaws as characters but, on balance, I think I liked Agnes better, and preferred her perspective. She could be irritatingly naïve, but despite her apparent trust in the system of Gilead I think it had given her a far greater instinct for self-preservation than Daisy seemed to have. While Daisy’s capital-t Teenage attitude was amusing, it often felt frustratingly self-defeating.
Aunt Lydia’s chapters are split between descriptions of her role in the running and maintenance of Gilead and descriptions of how the Republic came to be in the first place. Unusually, I enjoyed both of these elements pretty much equally, and I thought Lydia’s account of coming around to the point of betraying what she had previously believed in was chilling. As awful as her actions were at points, Atwood managed to create real empathy for her as a character.
Atwood’s writing is, as always, remarkable. Tight, spare and intelligent, it sets out a world of intricate complexities and imbues every character interaction with layers of hidden meanings without rambling. The story is pacey and plot-packed, and develops from tense dystopian thriller to almost action-adventure towards the end. While there are a number of incredibly dark and unhappy moments throughout the story, there’s also an enduring hopefulness running through it—which I found to be another stark departure from the previous book. Perhaps that’s in part because, as Aunt Lydia reminds us, “knowledge is power,” and between our three perspectives we’re given considerably more insight into both the inner workings of Gilead and the circumstances of our point of view characters than we had in The Handmaid’s Tale. In knowing more, we feel safer, and we can see chinks in the armour that weren’t apparent from the point of view of a single desperate Handmaid.
I found this book completely engrossing, reading my way through it at quite a pace, and despite the many tonal departures from the book it follows on from I would definitely recommend it if you enjoyed The Handmaid’s Tale. If you’re the type of reader to wonder what happens after the end of your favourite stories, this is going to be right up your street. The Testaments does contain some deeply disturbing scenes of—and references to—abuse and violence, including the sexual abuse of underage girls, so that’s something to be aware of if it’s a triggering topic for you, but most of what goes on is not markedly worse than the darker moments from The Handmaid’s Tale.
While not exactly what you’d call light reading, The Testaments nonetheless serves as a reminder to us of the agency we have, and the actions we have the freedom to take.