The Testaments review: Margaret Atwood's sequel to Handmaid's Tale is a 101 on how patriarchy works

The Gilead that we encounter in The Testaments is no less menacing than the one from The Handmaid's Tale, but its seams are fraying.

Rohini Nair September 22, 2019 09:42:50 IST
The Testaments review: Margaret Atwood's sequel to Handmaid's Tale is a 101 on how patriarchy works

Editor's note: Up to 14 October, when the Booker Prize 2019 winner will be announced, Firstpost will be reviewing the five books on the shortlist. This is your guide to the Booker contenders.


Whether it's due to history' own cyclical nature, or the prescience that marks a truly great writer of fiction, the prophetic nature of certain literary works has been driven home in recent times — be it George Orwell's 1984 and its vision of a post-truth world, falling IQs and the final glimpse of the future in HG Wells' The Time Machine, or the battle over women's bodies as seen in Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale.

The Handmaid's Tale, first published in 1985, was brought back into the popular discourse by the Hulu TV series of the same name. The show premiered in April 2017, a few months after Donald Trump — a man who boasted of "grabbing [women] by the pussy" and accused by multiple women of sexual assault — was elected US President. Later that year, the #MeToo movement was sparked off in the wake of two reports documenting sexual harassment allegations against Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein. #MeToo was cathartic, but even as some ground was gained, women's reproductive rights were under threat in several US states.

As the Elisabeth Moss-starring show has moved ahead of its source material in its second and third seasons, it has continued to (mostly) win kudos, although there has been the occasional thinkpiece on its flaws — especially the plot armour afforded to Moss' character Offred/June.

The Testaments review Margaret Atwoods sequel to Handmaids Tale is a 101 on how patriarchy works

The Testaments by Margaret Atwood is set 15 years after the events in The Handmaid's Tale

It is in contrasting Margaret Atwood's recently released sequel to The Handmaid's Tale — The Testaments — to the TV series' second and third seasons that her genius becomes especially evident. For where the show has chosen to follow June's increasingly dangerous adventures, Atwood neatly changes the script, turning to three new characters to tell the story of what happened in Gilead years after the original protagonist fled the republic.

These new characters include — and this may seem like a mild spoiler but really isn't because it's quite evident who these people are very soon into their individual narratives — June's daughters: Agnes Jemima and Baby Nicole/Daisy. The third character — and the one who looms largest over this narrative — is Aunt Lydia. The Testaments derives its name from the narrative being structured around the testimonies of these three characters: Aunt Lydia's, written in secret and hidden within a book, as a record of Gilead's rise and her own role in it; and Agnes Jemima and Daisy's recounted in retrospect to some unseen interviewer.

The Testaments begins 15 years after June's escape (and that of her baby Nicole's). Aunt Lydia is even more firmly entrenched as a power centre in Gilead, running operations from Ardua Hall, the residence of the Aunts. Commander Judd, the head of the bureau of Eyes, is both collaborator and thorn in her schemes. Agnes Jemima is going through the motions of a conventional Giledian girlhood, dealing with the loss of her loving adoptive mother, and the prospect of being married to Commander Judd having just entered her teens and thus being of 'marriageable' age. Daisy meanwhile, must tackle her own confusions across Gilead's borders in Canada, where she is being raised by (as she later finds out) members of the rebel group Mayday.

The Gilead that we encounter in The Testaments is no less menacing than the one from The Handmaid's Tale, but its seams are fraying. There's more world building from Atwood, a filling in of certain blanks as to how Gilead came to be; we see the nuts and bolts of its society. Its horrors are described more casually: the suicide of a supplicant deemed not worthy of being an Aunt, the fatal cutting open of a Handmaid during childbirth, girls of 13-14 being forced to marry men older than their fathers, paedophilia.

If the Gilead of The Handmaid's Tale was one of dangerous men (even if those men were more often in the background of the narrative), then The Testaments is about dangerous women. This is a generalisation of course; there were rebellious, dangerous women in The Handmaid's Tale too, be it June or Ofglen or Moira/…. or even Serena Joy and the seemingly omnipotent Aunts. But in The Testaments, the men recede even further, and although this is a world of their making and a world moreover that privileges them in every possible way, you find that some of the women have found a way to bend and shape this unfair world to their material advantage.

And chief among those 'dangerous women' — incidentally the title of an anthology edited by George RR Martin that she would fit very snugly into — is Aunt Lydia. If the Aunts and to a certain extent the Wives in The Handmaid's Tale seemed superficially to adhere to that hackneyed adage of a woman being a woman's worst enemy, then in The Testaments, Atwood shreds that flimsy cover for patriarchy, in the person of Aunt Lydia.

Aunt Lydia, that hated oppressor from The Handmaid's Tale becomes something else in The Testaments — a woman trying to survive and not let a man get the best of her in a newly ordered world. For both the republic of Gilead and its female citizens, Aunt Lydia switches between being a saviour and a saboteur. Her testimony provides a glimpse of the early days of Gilead, and how she — a family court judge — came to 'rule' over the women's domain in the republic with an iron hand. Her motives might be benevolent or in calculated self-interest, or both. She might be spurred by self-preservation or vengeance, or both. Atwood crafts a compelling character, who even as she supplies a steady stream of extremely young wives to hoary, murderous Commander Judd, ensures that a paedophilic dentist meets a befittingly gory end. Through Aunt Lydia's reminiscences, Atwood exposes the structures and mechanisms of oppression, and how these are perpetuated in society.

Aunt Lydia casts such a great shadow over The Testaments that the two other 'witnesses' seem less well-formed in comparison. Agnes Jemima's schooling and impressions of the world around her make for interesting reading, and Atwood's writing in The Testaments is most lyrical in these parts. Agnes' friendship with a schoolmate called Becka is possibly the most poignant portion in the book, especially the duo's crisis of faith as they come to discover Gilead's false foundations. But the Baby Nicole/Daisy portions unfortunately seem too much like chapters out of a YA novel. Gutsy teen taking on a dystopian republic after being suitably trained by a rebel group to whom she is a symbol of hope — how many times have we read that before? There's nothing wrong with Daisy's escapade (although it never feels quite as high stakes as it's supposed to be) but it's too much of a trope now to be included here.

The Testaments doesn't feel as groundbreaking as The Handmaid's Tale in the ideas it espouses but somehow it feels more real. We may not all be Junes but given the wrong mix of circumstances, we could possibly feel compelled to act as Aunt Lydias.

Last year, some of Margaret Atwood's comments about the #MeToo movement triggered a backlash since they were perceived as anti-women. In interviews leading up to The Testaments' release, however, Atwood expounded on her views to say that rather than "believe all women" the movement should take as its slogan "listen to all women, and then investigate their claims and take action". She cautions against taking one group of individuals — women — and labelling them angels.

This view is very evident in The Testaments where women aren't angels, they're just women. Good women and bad women, strong women and weak women, well intentioned women and malicious women. Women who want to harm and women who want to help. Women who fight the system that would keep them down, and women who fall in with it. They're all here in Gilead. And The Testaments makes you wonder, when push comes to shove, what kind you'll prove to be.

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