[Note: The Testaments picks up fifteen years after Offred leaves readers in the Handmaid’s Tale, and just as Atwood waited and quietly planned to revisit one of her most favored works, Aunt Lydia has been waiting patiently to strike Gilead.]
In the three decades since its publication, Margaret Atwood’s prose in The Handmaid’s Tale has aged well, but the potency of the fascistic, religiously motivated, hyper-patriarchal country she created, Gilead, has not. This is, in all likelihood, why the Hulu series of the same name has done well —it took the bones of Atwood’s world and created a fleshy kinship to how we live and think today.
Now, in her highly anticipated follow up, The Testaments, Atwood has remedied the charge of cultural irrelevance by some readers. What’s more, Atwood seems to have done what no author has before, namely, to pluck integral plots elements directly from the television show and marrying them with her own. The result is a well-paced, topical, and thoughtful novel.
It is one of the delights of The Testaments to read now 79-year-old Atwood’s portrayal of the angsty, sailor-mouthed Daisy.
Readers and viewers of The Handmaid’s Tale will be pleased to reunite with Aunt Lydia, one of three main women characters in The Testaments. Newcomers to the story will be spared the whiplash of reconciling discrepancies that arise when fusing together the varied renderings of this story that longtime fans may encounter. Even so, readers will probably forgive the incongruencies, instead relishing the dexterity of Atwood’s writing, which is as clean as ever.
The narrators live both in and outside of Gilead, but as the novel wears on their interconnectedness becomes clearer, eventually merging into a satisfying harmony. Aunt Lydia begins the narration, revealing her past life as a judge and how her willingness to comply during the coup that birthed Gilead has positioned her to not only maintain existing systems of women’s oppression but to aid in building new ones from the ground up. Daisy is a discontented teenager in Canada whose true identity has been kept from her for her entire life. Once revealed, she is called upon to infiltrate Gilead. With almost no understanding of what she is to do, Daisy accepts. It is one of the delights of The Testaments to read now 79-year-old Atwood’s portrayal of the angsty, sailor-mouthed Daisy. We also come to know Agnes, the daughter of a powerful Commander in Gilead who struggles after the death of her adoptive mother. Ultimately, Agnes shirks her divine duty to marry and attempt reproduction, either herself or via a fertile handmaid, to become an Aunt under the charge of Aunt Lydia.
One cannot help but feel Atwood is having a wonderful time here, writing each woman with such care that you may be tempted to guess whose voice is her favorite. Each of the stories aids in her grandest feat: commenting on the real-life patriarchy and the descent into fascistic values subtly enough to allow readers to stick with the story but ponder over her astuteness later. Without beating us over the head, Atwood shows us that we must remain vigilant in our criticism and subversion of political conditions. But she offers a world just far enough removed from our own to feel safe and we are in turn unable to not turn the next page.
Denver Lively-Hatcher, an Olympia native, is a junior at the University of Illinois in Chicago where she studies social welfare policy and pre-law.