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Published September 17th 2019
A spoiler-free review of the sequel to The Handmaid's Tale
The Testaments by Margaret Atwood is the eagerly awaited sequel to her 1985 novel The Handmaid's Tale. For fans, thirty four years is an agonisingly long time to wait for a sequel, but trust me the wait has been worth it.
You're probably wondering what was the impetus for the sequel so many years after the first novel? Atwood has shared that The Testaments was written partly as a response to readers of The Handmaid's Tale who kept asking what happens to Offred after the end of that novel.
You may remember at the conclusion of The Handmaid's Tale Offred is removed from the Waterfords residence and taken away in a van. She doesn't know why she is being taken away or where she is going. The reader is left wondering if this is the end for her or could it possibly be a new beginning? In addition, readers were also particularly interested in the fate of Gilead - would it survive or would it fall? The sequel was written to answer these questions and it does so in a compelling and satisfying way.
The first thing to know about The Testaments is that it is set fifteen years after the end of the first novel. The Republic of Gilead has survived and has "settled into its dog-eat-dog maturity". However, the cracks are starting to appear as the Republic deals with problems such as "handmaid seepage" and a high emigration rate. Not surprisingly we also find those in power are turning on each other.
The second thing to be aware of is the format of The Testaments is very different from The Handmaid's Tale. The story is told in the form of witness testimony by three female narrators. The first narrator is Aunt Lydia, who we are very familiar with from the first novel and who is now the most senior of the Aunts in Gilead. She is now of an age where she is contemplating the end of her life as well as the road she has taken to arrive here. Of this journey she says, "You take the first step, and to save yourself from the consequences, you take the next one. In times like ours, there are only two directions: up or plummet."
The second narrator is Agnes, a young woman who has grown up in Gilead and who knows no other way of life. As a daughter of a Commander, she attends a school for young women, which is run by the Aunts, to learn how to be a Wife. But as the date of her impending marriage looms she questions whether this is the life she wants for herself and if there is any possibility of escaping her dreadful fate.
Our third narrator has a view from outside of Gilead, in the form of Daisy, a teen living in Canada with a couple she believes are her parents. However, on her sixteenth birthday, she learns a secret about her life and her connection to Gilead which propels her in a dangerous direction.
The narrators alternate with each new chapter and the reader is shown a broader view of Gilead than what we saw in The Handmaid's Tale. Not only do we see how Gilead operates from the inside - with the relatively powerful position of Aunt Lydia and conversely with the vulnerable and disenfranchised position of Agnes - but we also see how Gilead is viewed from the outside, through the perspective of Daisy, who is aware of Gilead through protest marches, through the work of Gilead's missionaries as well as through classes about Gilead at her high school.
As the narrators share their experiences the reader is shown how the totalitarian regime has gained control of women, and the ways it uses its power over women and their reproductive rights - it is an alarmingly relevant reminder in today's political climate. The most insightful sections for me were the transcripts of Aunt Lydia, which recount her early days in the Republic of Gilead, her motivation for taking on the role of an Aunt and how she has survived and managed to thrive in this restrictive and terrifying new society.
The setting of the sequel fifteen years after the first novel is a clever technique. It allows the story to use and build on the events of the television series but also leaves plenty of room for that series to expand. Similarly, the character of Baby Nicole, which was introduced in the television series, is skillfully used in The Testaments as a thread that ties the books and television series together.
As you'd expect from Atwood the story is beautifully written. It is also fast-paced and driven by action and the 400 plus pages fly by as you are engrossed in the story from beginning to end. For me The Testaments propels this much-loved story to new, exciting and surprising places and should no doubt satisfy the fans it was written for.
The Testaments was published in September 2019 and is available to order from your local bookstore.
Published by: Random House UK