There are lots of places I would gladly return to, but the totalitarian theocracy of Gilead is not one that I would relish to revisit in real life. But in fiction? Sign me up. Especially, if the regime is about to come down at the hands of a woman.
Margaret Atwood’s sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale, THE TESTAMENTS, was a joint winner of the 2019 Booker Prize. Written thirty plus years after The Handmaid’s Tale, and preempted by a Hulu series, The Testaments tries to traverse the space between the original novel and the new series – though the publisher insists that it is a separate story and is not connected to the television series. Where the two intersect, however, is with a character named June – a handmaid that escapes Gilead and gives birth to a second daughter, Nicole.
The story is told through three narrators: Aunt Lydia, and two young women – one, Agnes, raised in Gilead and the other, Daisy, raised in Canada by two operatives for the subversive Mayday operation. Aunt Lydia’s segments are the most satisfying. We learn about her early history and how she became the most powerful woman in the patriarchal society, so much so that a statue is erected in her honor – while she is still alive (unheard of! But you’ll have to read the book to find out why). Lydia subscribes and teaches the tenants of Gilead in her role as a most revered Aunt, but in the evenings she plots and records her traitorous intentions in a hidden notebook. “I’ve become swollen with power, true, but also nebulous with it — formless and shape-shifting. How can I regain myself? How to shrink back to my normal size, the size of an ordinary woman?” she wonders. Aunt Lydia is acerbic, sardonic, and witty. Her sections are a delight to read and immensely satisfying in contrast to the more passive character of Offred from The Handmaid’s Tale.
Some readers are disappointed in The Testaments, thinking it does not rise to the level of The Handmaid’s Tale, but the horrors of Gilead were already revealed to us in that book and I found Lydia’s backstory and the story of the fall of Gilead to be a long-delayed gratification. I relished in Lydia’s power and the subversive way in which she used it. “How quickly a hand becomes a fist,” she writes.
Why resurrect the story of Gilead all these years later? At her book launch of The Testaments, Atwood said that societies throughout the world resemble Gilead more so now than they did 34 years ago. “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes,” Atwood writes. How important it is to remember the past so that we can change the future.
I recommend The Testaments for fans of George Orwell’s 1984, Sinclair Lewis’ It Can’t Happen Here, and of course, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale.