Review: The Testaments, Margaret Atwood

I learned a long time ago that a sequel is not always a good thing. There is a reason why I never rushed out to buy Go Set A Watchman. Then you have to consider the book in question. The Handmaid’s Tale was published in 1985 and concluded on an infamously enigmatic note. I first read it as a fifteen year old and was aghast but over time I recognised that the lack of happy ending was rather the point. The world of Gilead represents the triumph of misogyny and the oppression of women, an issue as old as the earth. How could Atwood ever tie that up in a tidy way and give a happy ending? And yet, with The Testaments, she sets out to do just that.

Set fifteen years after the events of the first novel, The Testaments picks up the lives of three different women. One is Agnes Jemima, a young Gilead woman who discovers that she is the daughter of a Handmaid, another is Daisy, a girl growing up in Canada. The third character is one that readers are more likely to recognise – Aunt Lydia, sure to raise a shiver along the spine of anyone familiar with the original. As before, the narratives are presented as artefacts under discussion at a conference. We are assured that Gilead is at a distance, that it is in the past and yet it so often feels very close.

There has been a lot of speculation about what motivated Margaret Atwood to write this book and indeed why she chose to write it now. The Handmaid’s Tale has been in the news for several reasons of late. One aspect is that women have been protesting at access to birth control and abortion being rolled back by appearing in court silently dressed as Handmaids, emphasising the American legislature’s turn towards Gilead values. As Atwood points out in this very book, history may not repeat itself but it does ‘rhyme’. Another reason for publishing now though has been the recent television series. It was at first widely acclaimed but then more recently decried as torture porn. Atwood appeared herself for a split-second cameo but has no other creative control. Some suggested that The Testaments was her chance to wrest back the narrative. Now that we have the book in front of us though, this appears unlikely since, much to my own astonishment, Atwood is actually following certain events laid out in the most recent season of the television show.

Onscreen, Offred discovers that she is pregnant, most likely by Nick the driver. Complications ensue but she ultimately gives birth to a child who she calls Holly but who her Commander and his wife call Nicole. At the end of the second series, Nicole is smuggled to Canada. In the book, fifteen years have passed but the Gilead state continue to petition for the child’s return but Baby Nicole’s whereabouts are unknown. This is an interesting creative decision since it still leaves room for the television producers to do what they want while permitting book and series to co-exist in the same universe. Ultimately, The Testaments appears to be another of those ‘side-quels’ which have become popular in recent years, akin to The Book of Dust.

Yet this is such a tricky story on which to tack on an addendum. The Handmaid’s Tale is a unique piece of literature because it has been claimed by its readers to an almost unprecedented degree. Atwood had intended her original protagonist to be nameless but has seemingly accepted the ruling of her readers that the Handmaid’s name is June. The book literally ended with the words ‘Any Questions’? It is left up to the reader to decide what it means and what they will choose to do with the book’s message. For a story that has been so ‘set loose’, can Atwood really take back the reins?

My main concern was how the novel would approach Aunt Lydia. Like all of the best villains, she had minimal page time but maximum presence. Aunt Lydia was the True Believer. The woman who rained down judgment on other women. Played to perfection by Ann Dowd in the television series, she is that ghastly mixture of bossy headmistress and total sadist. The embodiment of everyday evil. And then we have The Testaments where we discover how she came to be and how she works to redeem herself.

Aunt Lydia writes her testimony in Cardinal Newman’s Apologia Pro Vita Sua: A Defense of One’s Own Life. We hear how she was once a professional woman like Offred. She details her brutal treatment at the hands of Gilead. She watched other people make futile stands against the guards and then saw them all be shot afterwards. Rather than the black-and-white villain, Aunt Lydia is a woman who was given two choices. The moral choice or the one that keeps you alive. I don’t have to drop any spoilers for the reader to guess which one she took.

It’s taken me a while to think about how this twist on the character made me feel. My initial response was that it weakened the story. To add in these mitigating circumstances watered down Aunt Lydia’s villainy. Then I realised that this was the point. While the character may have become a fantastic figure of hate for readers, Margaret Atwood has quietly returned to the stage to remind us that people are rarely so clear-cut in their motivations. I realised that this new conflict in Aunt Lydia’s character relates to my on-going bug-bear around cancel culture.

The hugely successful book series Goodnight Stories For Rebel Girls contains pellet-sized biographies of famous women alongside pretty pictures. It reduces these compelling characters to their simplest possible form. It also allows for absolutely no complexity. Already they are considering hauling Aung San Suu Kyi out from future editions. But even aside from that  spectacular fall from grace, I was startled by how euphemistic they had to be. None of us is perfect and these women certainly weren’t either. Coco Chanel attempted to have her early business investor deported by the Nazis. But in the modern era, everyone has to be perfect or else they have to publicly pilloried on Twitter and then we all clap ourselves on the back for how moral we have been to participate in a public lynching. In Goodnight Stories, these women are scrubbed clean into blank-faced paragons and all the grit and the grind and the strive that made them heroic in the first place is wiped away. Too messy.

The irony for me is that whenever these things happen, the words that come to my mind are Romans 3:23: ‘For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus‘. It interests me that in this increasingly secular world, this doctrine has fallen into disuse. I would add however that some of the most judgmental people you could ever encounter are Christians, but my point is that the utter lack of grace among the millennial generation is really quite depressing.

Returning to Aunt Lydia, I think about who she was. In the dawning days of Gilead, she sat with her colleague, unsure of what would happen next. Her colleague turned to her and said by way of valediction, ‘You were a damn fine judge’. By this point, Aunt Lydia was in her forties and had led a decent enough life. Within a few months she had become one of the chief architects of a regime that oppressed and abused women. She manipulated. She lied. She had people put to death. Yet we also discover that the original Aunt Lydia, her pre-Gilead self, is not entirely gone. Sometimes she helps. Sometimes she drops hints to encourage others to help. Why does she do this? Does she wish to redeem herself? Does she simply fear what will befall her if Gilead crumbles? Or is she, like so many human beings, motivated by more than just one thing?

I struggle to think of Aunt Lydia as heroic but when I stop to drill down to why that is, I end up landing on the fact that she has been a villain in my mind for so long. When I first read the book aged fifteen, I believed that things like this would never be able to happen. Then I learned that the whole conceit of the book was that Atwood had only used events that had happened to women somewhere in history. That Iran had undergone a remarkably similar regime change. I was shocked. Then over time I encountered some Gileadesque thought processes among my Christian friends. I realised that there are all too many Handmaids walking among us. But if Aunt Lydia is a pure villain, she has become so due to that grasping, clawing human desire for survival, an instinct that any of us could find ourselves giving in to in her place.

When we look back over history though, Aunt Lydia would not be the first leader to have achieved her ends through dubious methods. Winston Churchill was racist, a highly ineffective peace-time Prime Minister and carries a huge amount of responsibility for the Bengal Famine. He also led the way in covering up the Katyn Massacre. Martin Luther King plagiarised his doctoral thesis. Gandhi was guilty of sexually inappropriate behaviour. Nelson Mandela was a terrorist in his early career. Yet society feels able to put a soft focus on the less palatable aspects of these men’s lives in favour of their overall achievements. We embrace the complexity. Why is it that we never seem able to do this for female leaders? Why is their every mis-deed picked over and held up to the light?

In revealing Aunt Lydia’s complexities, Atwood underlines that Handmaid’s Tale is no pantomime of goodies versus baddies. Both sides dwell in all of the characters. The mother who kept Agnes safe was complicit in her abduction. Indeed, despite her origins, Daisy is one of the less likeable characters, full of a teenager’s spite. The reader has to judge for themselves what the truth is of Aunt Lydia. One could argue that she is a courageous warrior, holding her breath until she has risen to the point where she can strike a fatal blow at Gilead’s heart. Or perhaps she was a die-hard Gilead leader who simply got cold feet. But I keep thinking back on how Aunt Lydia observed someone try to rebel very early on and how they were abruptly executed. She may have played a long game, a very long game, but Aunt Lydia got results. Here we echo back to Offred’s tearful recognition that one day the dial would spin back the other way, that Gilead would fall, but that it would not necessarily happen within her own lifetime. Time and patience, Aunt Lydia spinning her web like a spider.

Gilead has aged well as a dystopia. With the outside world shut out, Agnes has grown up in a vacuum. She and her friend Becca have grown up in ignorance, knowing only what they have been taught by the authorities. When they finally do encounter Daisy, the culture shock is clear. Atwood even harks back to the notorious scene in the first book where the Handmaids are trained to turn on one of their number for being a rape victim, telling her ‘Your fault’. Daisy barks back that this is unacceptable victim blaming. Yet we see that Agnes and Becca are baffled by this. They are the finished product of this training and know no other way.

Indeed, here we have the crucial difference between Handmaid and Testaments. While the first book warns us that Gilead might one day get us, this follow-up gives us hope that we can get away from it again. Agnes and Becca can learn and grow. Their minds can break free. Those who would wish them harm can be overcome. Those who have done them harm can try to atone. In these uncertain times, as reproductive rights are tightened and fake news grows more pervasive, this message is startling positive. If Handmaid served as a shout of outrage, Testaments is a battle cry, an exhortation that tomorrow can be a better day.

Yet I still can’t help but feel that Testaments has robbed its predecessor of some of its punch. When I read a book by Margaret Atwood, I expect to have my preconceptions challenged, to be made to think but more than that – I expect to be left wondering. What was the truth about Grace Marks’ guiltPenelopiad considered the women of classical mythology about ten years before the recent trend for books examining their perspective. Hag-Seed made me consider The Tempest in a whole new way. Even The Blind Assassin put a chill up my spine about the position of women and the stories we tell. Heavy on the exposition, the reader is not left with questions at the end of The Testaments

Margaret Atwood was clear that she was not expecting the book to receive the Booker Prize. Stunned though I am to say this of an Atwood novel, I am similarly unsure that it quite deserved to win. The award felt more like an apology because The Handmaid’s Tale was passed over back in 1985. Testaments is a postscript to that earlier book rather than something that stands on its own merits. The Handmaid’s Tale is a book that has a message so powerful that it can speak to you in different ways each time you read it. It grows with its readers and it has grown over time. The Testaments is also a powerful book but it feels more rooted in the moment we are in now, in a world turning back towards populism with fractures starting to show. Only time will tell if it matures alongside its predecessor but while I cling hard to its message of hope, it is definitely the younger sibling.

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by Margaret Atwood
Published by Random House Genres: Dystopian, Fiction, General, Literary, Science Fiction

One thought on “Review: The Testaments, Margaret Atwood

  1. Ooooh, I was so looking forward to reading your review of this one, and it was worth the wait! I love your focus on Aunt Lydia, and the shades of grey that we afford to male heroes/villains (fictional and factional). I had similarly mixed feelings about her character, but definitely came away with the impression that it’s exactly what Atwood intended. For me, The Testaments felt satisfying in the sense that I was completely frustrated by how little I knew about Gilead, this incredibly intricate world of which Atwood only gave us a glimpse, a single perspective, in THT – so I was glad to get a wider view. Thank you so much for reading and sharing your thoughts! Hope you and the Astronaut and the rest of your family are safe and well!

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