This review contains spoilers for The Handmaid's Tale (1985) by Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid's Tale TV show (2017- present) and The Testaments (2019) by Margaret Atwood.
The Handmaid's Tale (1985) is a speculative fiction novel by Margaret Atwood and a modern-day classic tale that follows the story of a woman known as Offred (she had another name, but it is forbidden now) who lives as a Handmaid in the Republic of Gilead. Gilead is a totalitarian theocracy that took over the United States of America.
Gilead society functions on a model of religious fanaticism, military dictatorship and strict social classes. In Gilead, the United States Constitution has been abolished, the media has been censored, women and other minorities have been stripped of their rights and laws have been rewritten to reflect the Old Testament.
Due to a fertility crisis, fertile women are made into Handmaids, which are a class of women made to wear red dresses and white bonnets and forced to conceive and carry the children of a powerful class of men in Gilead called Commanders.
The Handmaid's Tale ended on a cliffhanger with Offred being escorted away from her Commander's house and being put into the back of a van. For over 35 years fans have been begging Margaret Atwood to answer the question: What happened to Offred at the end of The Handmaid's Tale?
Margaret Atwood is one of the most influential and esteemed writers of our time
The Testaments is a 2019 novel by Margaret Atwood and the much-anticipated sequel to the Handmaid's Tale. The Testaments was announced on 28 November 2018 and released on 10 September 2019 over 35 years after The Handmaid's Tale was published in 1985. When I first heard that Atwood was going to be writing a sequel to The Handmaid's Tale after 35 years, I was apprehensive. It felt like she was taking advantage of the popularity and interest in the new television adaptation. I was worried that the book wouldn't be worth reading, or worse, would feel like an attempt to cash in on the buzz surrounding the television show.
Margaret Atwood HAS been influenced by the TV show and has borrowed a lot from it to write The Testaments. That much is clear. But don't let that turn you off from reading this book.
The Testaments is narrated by three female characters: Aunt Lydia, one of the main characters in the original novel and new TV adaptation, and Offred's two young daughters, Agnes Jemima (known as Hannah in the TV show) and Daisy (also known as Nicole in the book and on the TV show).
I've read The Handmaid's Tale and watched the TV show. One complaint I see a lot is people think that June/Offred's point of view is too limited. What makes The Testaments so great is that by having three different points of view, we get to see Gilead from a lot of different angles. My favourite two narrators in the book were Agnes and Aunt Lydia.
Agnes was separated from her birth mother (Offred) at a young age and then adopted by a Commander and his wife and re-named Agnes. Agnes grows up in Gilead as a daughter which is a class of women in Gilead who are female children of high-ranking Commanders. I really liked the chapters where Agnes describes what it is like to grow up in Gilead as a girl.
Agnes points out the flaws within Gilead in her testimony, but also defends the regime as well, arguing that children are still loved and cherished there. Growing up, Agnes was very close to her adoptive mother Tabitha, whom she believed for a long time was her biological mother. Agnes was raised to believe that girls like her were 'precious flowers' and that she shouldn't do anything to bring ruin to herself and scatter her petals.
In one of her chapters, Agnes talks about how she used to like to watch her family's Marthas work in the kitchen. One of the things the Marthas would let her do when she was little was take scraps of dough and make dough-men out of them and then cook them in the oven. Agnes liked to make dough-men and never dough-women because eating the dough-men after they came out of the oven was the only time she ever felt like she had any real power over men. Considering Agnes is just a small girl in this scene, it's pretty heart breaking.
Atwood's descriptions of Agnes going to school were interesting but also very sad. Daughters are sent to schools for domestic arts where they are taught it is their duty to get married and have children. They are forbidden from learning mathematics or how to read and write and are instead taught skills like gardening, petit-point embroidery and crochet work which are considered good skills for a wife to have. The prospect of marriage excites some girls, but for others, it terrifies them to the point where they consider suicide as a form to escape.
Another horrifying aspect of Gilead that The Testaments touches on is pedophilia being a huge problem among the Commanders. It is tradition for daughters to be married off as young as thirteen to often much older men. In the Testaments we are introduced to a new character, Commander Judd, who likes child-brides so much he kills his wives when they get too old so he can request a new child-bride. He is going to be terrifying when he appears on the TV show.
Aunt Lydia was my favorite character in this book. There's a sentence I never thought I'll hear myself say. Atwood explores her character and paints a very human picture of her. In the original novel and TV adaption, Aunt Lydia is a devout follower in the Gileadean mission and doctrine who is put in charge of instructing the Handmaid's in their sacred duties. Aunt Lydia has been depicted as a terrifying, cruel person who uses brutal and harsh punishments on the Handmaid's to teach them how to behave. In The Testaments she has more layers.
In The Testaments, Aunt Lydia recounts the events in her life leading up to the rise of Gilead and explains how she managed to survive and find a role for herself in the brutal dictatorship. We learn that Aunt Lydia used to be a Family Court Judge in the time before Gilead. After the Sons of Jacob take over, Lydia is arrested and taken to a sports stadium with other older, well educated women.
Lydia is confined to the stadium for days in very poor conditions and forced to watch mass executions of women who refuse to follow Gilead. Eventually, Lydia is taken and interviewed and then locked in a squalid cell alone for days. My favorite scene is when some men burst into Lydia's cell and begin beating her. Lydia starts to cry but also starts to 'see' everything through a third eye she imagines appearing in the middle of her forehead. This book is going to change the TV show in big ways.
The Testaments blew me out of the water. Margaret Atwood has written a narrative that reads like a blockbuster movie, it moves at a fast pace, and is packed with shocking twists and turns. It is a fantastic book that stands well on its own and is also a worthy sequel to The Handmaid's Tale. It was well worth the 35-year-long wait.