With the extraordinary success of the television adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale, Atwood’s classic was given a new lease of life and attracted new fans and re-engaged old fans with the 1985 classic all around the world. For a long time, we have had to ponder what happened to Offred after she was placed into the black van, at the hands of the Eyes… or the Mayday operatives.
This year felt like the perfect time for Atwood to release this important sequel, and now as the announced Man Booker Prize winner, which was shared with Bernadine Evaristo’s Girl, Woman, Other, Atwood’s The Testaments is a book you cannot leave on the shelf (after having picked up The Handmaid’s Tale first of course).
What is it all about?
Atwood’s sequel follows the perspective of three women, Aunt Lydia, Agnes and ‘Baby Nicole’ who was smuggled out of Gilead as a baby and became the poster child of Gilead. These perspectives satisfy our yearning to understand Gilead and the effects this dystopian society has upon women from both inside and outside of the regime.
We now finally have an account of the infamous Aunt Lydia as her stern, outward power shifts in The Testaments to introduce us to her past life as a lawyer who was given the choice to either die or flourish within this dystopian world. By following the written entries of her life, Aunt Lydia reveals how she must now destroy what she was forced to help build. Like The Handmaid’s Tale, the novel reveals the things humans can do to one another in order to survive, and at times the novel is able to terrify us with the harsh and brutal realities of being a woman in Gilead.
Another important story which runs alongside this narrative is that of Agnes. The generational shift between Aunt Lydia and Agnes is effective in highlighting how abuse can be rationalised because Agnes has never known another way of life. At first, Agnes does not realise that Gilead needs to be destroyed. Instead Agnes thinks that only the corruption between those in power needs to be uprooted so the regime can peacefully continue. As she is a product of this regime, through her eyes, we are able to see the corruption of Gilead take root as it brainwashes and manipulates the masses.
The perspective of ‘Baby Nicole’ also fits perfectly with the narrative. This third perspective from outside of Gilead shows how the world perceives this regime. Finally, the war which we hear so much about in Gilead, becomes a reality for readers as we follow the operations of Mayday and the truth about what is happening on the front lines. ‘Baby Nicole’ adds danger and tension to the narrative and it is her relationship with Agnes that cements their strength and willpower to get out of Gilead alive.
As the three perspectives come together, we watch with elation and relief as the gender that is crushed the most by the regime, rises up against the persecutors. Aunt Lydia’s story is a tragic one, but her self-sacrifice makes up for the wrongdoings of her past as she offers the gift of freedom to the next generation.
At times the pace of the novel is so fast that it loses the beautifully detailed and elaborate descriptions The Handmaid’s Tale is able to offer us. But this fast pace is important as it highlights the urgency of the characters as the perspective dashes from one character to the other, as we wait with bated breath for the breaking point.
Tense, heart breaking, powerful and hopeful, Atwood’s The Testaments finally answers our questions, builds up nail-biting tension and makes us shout out with joy as this patriarchal system finally meets its doom.
Buy Now, Daunt Books, £20
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