The Testaments by Margaret Atwood
Published by Nan A. Talese
Publication date: September 10, 2019
Genres: Book Clubs, Dystopian, Fiction, Science Fiction
It begins with the gathering up of the women. They are herded into what used to be a sports stadium and separated into groups. Based on what? Not race. Not age. No, profession. Doctors recognize fellow practitioners, teachers band together, lawyers huddle. They’re kept for days, even weeks. And then, the executions start. This is the chilling introduction to The Testaments, Margaret Atwood’s sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale. This winnowing is described by Aunt Lydia, a judge whose instincts for self-preservation allow her to betray her gender. She and several other women work with the men who have overthrown the U.S. government creating the rules to which all the women of the newly founded country of Gilead must adhere. It is now 15 years after those gruesome days and Aunt Lydia and the men she serves retain a slippery grip on power. But for how long?
Aunt Lydia is one of three narrators in the novel. The other two are: 13-year-old Agnes, who comes from a prominent family and is reaching the age of marriage, and Daisy, a Canadian teenager living in freedom and marching against Gilead’s repressive regime. They live lives in diametric opposition to one another, but they are linked in ways they don’t understand. Daisy may have the freedom of a normal teenager, but as the tensions between Gilead and the rest of the free world increase events arise that shatter her reality. And despite being one of Gilead’s elite, Agnes finds that her mother’s death triggers situations that challenge her privilege. In between both Aunt Lydia rules all spheres of women, but is subversive enough to be writing her own history of Gilead and all the secrets its commanders want to stay hidden.
That’s as much plot as I’m willing to give and you need to know. Suffice it to say, I picked up The Testaments and did nothing else until I’d finished. Atwood’s description of life in Gilead, made my stomach hurt. It is, on the one hand, farcical and impossible to believe, but on the other—a group of old, white, conservative, pseudo-religious men exerting complete control over the lives of women? Not so hard to fathom. Atwood lets the implications of a totalitarian patriarchal society unfold in all their gruesome minutia. No opportunity to subjugate a woman is too small. Child brides, no reading because it’s destructive to the tiny female brain, color coded clothes to denote a woman’s status—the commanders’ creativity and hypocrisy are mind boggling.
It’s all enough to make a woman scream. And then light something on fire. The good news is that Atwood builds her pyre carefully, with an incendiary plot, lit by a faint flame, then doused in gasoline prose. The Testaments is a novel of awakening. Atwood is calling out the world as she sees it before it happens. If you care, you’ll take something away from it. If not, it’s still a powerhouse of a story about both the larger life themes—equality, self-determination, ethics, freedom—and the smaller, individual ones—belonging, growing up, identity.
And how easily a hand becomes a fist.
There’s a lot of discussion about whether you need to read The Handmaid’s Tale and my answer is no. It’s worthwhile reading and will enhance The Testaments if you do, but Atwood is so skilled that she weaves the key components from one story to the next. I read The Handmaid’s Tale again last year and only vaguely remember its story, but didn’t feel I was missing anything.