Book Review: “The Testaments” (by Margaret Atwood)

Warning: Some spoilers for the novel follow.

When I heard that Margaret Atwood was writing a sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale, I have to admit that I was a little afraid. Would she be able to pull off returning to this world that she created with such piercing and devastating clarity decades ago? Would it feel a bit stale and warmed-over? These, to me, were the questions and anxieties I had going into The Testaments.

Fortunately for me, and for all of those who enjoyed the first novel, Atwood has crafted a superb sequel that answers some of the questions posed by The Handmaid’s Tale, even while it raises others.

The novel is almost breathlessly paced, drawing you in from the first page and not letting you go until the last. It toggles between three very different perspectives. Agnes is a young woman who has been raised under the Gilead regime and, aside from some distant memories, has no recollection of any life before it. Nicole, on the other hand, has been raised in Canada and is horrified by the abuses that she theocracy to the south continues to perpetrate and becomes part of a mission to bring it down. And, lastly, there is Aunt Lydia herself, who emerges from this story as a potential fifth column from within Gilead.

Nicole and Agnes, each in their different ways, help shed a light on what it’s like for the second generation of those coming of age after the rise of the Sons of Jacob. For her part, Nicole has an outsiders’ perspective and this, combined with her very spiky and prickly nature, means that she views it with nothing but contempt. Agnes, on the other hand, has been raised to believe in its strictures, though she, too, comes to have significant doubts about the rightness and sanctity of it, particularly after she begins her training to become an Aunt. Atwood does a fine job of conveying her divided loyalties, torn as she is between her own independent spirit and the injunction to obedience that is so much a part of Gilead’s culture.

As interesting as both Nicole and Agnes are, however, the most fascinating character in the novel is, as perhaps Atwood intended, Aunt Lydia herself. Lydia has always been one of the figures that towers over all the forms of this story (Anne Dowd’s portrayal of her in the TV series is one of the most terrifying things about it). Here, she is at once more human than her earlier counterparts and also more sympathetic and, in her own voice, we learn about the choices she had to make as she began her ascent into the upper echelons of power.

And yet, there is also something sphinx-like about her. We’re never quite sure about her motivations. Assuming that it is really Lydia–and, given the postscript we can be forgiven for having some doubts about this–we are left to wonder why, exactly, she is doing so much to bring about the end of the order that she helped to bring into being. Is she doing it because the upper echelons have become hopelessly corrupt (which is what she suggests), or does she have some other purpose, some sense of guilt, perhaps, at what she has done and at the lives that she has ruined (and taken) along the way? The novel is rather vague about these points and, to my mind, that is all to the good.

As with its predecessor, we never get a full glimpse of the world of which Gilead is a part. We don’t get a strong sense, for example, of just how far its borders go, though there are tantalizing glimpses of what the country outside of Gilead looks like. We are informed, for example, that there is such a thing as the Republic of Texas (though why a place like Texas wouldn’t jump aboard a theocracy is a little unclear).

As breathlessly paced as it is, The Testaments is even more scathing than its predecessor in showing the essential hypocrisy at the heart of Gilead. Commander Judd, for example, is fond of younger women and, even more unfortunately, has a bad habit of killing his wives when they get too old to stimulate him. And, of course, Aunt Lydia’s fellow Aunts are as vindictive and corrupt as everyone else, and it is only through her own relentless and ruthless manipulation that she is able to stay one step ahead of the game.

The Testaments is, overall, a significantly more optimistic novel than its predecessor, and one gets the sense that this optimism is in part a response to the much bleaker political reality in which it was produced. After all, while its predecessor emerged during the early days of the Religious Right’s rise to prominence, The Testaments has come about in an age in which the future that Atwood originally envisioned has come ever closer to being a lived reality. In allowing these characters to have more agency to change the world in which they live–and in allowing Aunt Lydia the chance to redeem herself–the novel suggests that no one is beyond redemption, that even the most corrupt society can be returned to normalcy.

The Testaments is also like a similarly-themed work of recent vintage, the television series Years and Years. Both works seem to take the view that it is always darkest just before the light, that even in the midst of what seems like hell on earth, there is a brighter future just around the corner. It may seem a little trite to some, but for those of us who sometimes struggle to see a brighter future, novels like The Testaments are a reminder that it is always darkest just before the dawn. When I was finished with the novel, I felt much more optimistic than I had in a very long time indeed. For this, if for nothing else, Atwood’s The Testaments deserves all of the praise that it receives.