BY MARGARET ATWOOD
This joint 2019 Booker Prize winner by Margaret Atwood is a thoroughly compelling and riveting sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale, offering hope and a wider dynamic to the innermost workings of Gilead. However, if you haven’t read 'The Handmaid’s Tale' or watched the Netflix series, then this should be your starting point so check out our review in the Den’s Library.
With Offred’s fate unknown, 'The Testaments' begins 15 years later with the witness testimonials of three women from Gilead. The mistreatment of women is as ingrained as ever, and any attempts to escape to the “outside’ world are punishable by death. These women risk everything to try and end this deplorable regime. We also learn that Commander Waterford’s daughter, (of course in reality Offred’s daughter) baby Nicole, has been smuggled into Canada and it has become the mission of Gilead to secure her return.
Aunt Lydia has the highest status of the 3 witness testimonials within Gilead and her manuscript, The Ardua Hall Holograph comes from the heart of the hierarchy. We learn she took on her role as rule enforcer having endured horrific hardship and indignities. She is calculated but totally driven in her determination to succeed and it seems she is out for revenge as much as caring about what happens to Gilead.
The second witness testimony is that of Agnes, a young girl grown up in Gilead, taught to conform and do her duty. The fear of a highly inappropriate marriage to a Commander several times her age, causes her to take the only possible action to avoid this fate, which is to train to become an Aunt herself at Ardua Hall under the leadership of Aunt Lydia. It is only at this stage, despite having been at school in Gilead, that she is taught to read and write.
The third witness testimony by Daisy is the only one which touches on both the outside world and inside Gilead. Having grown up in Canada, she is educated and streetwise. Consequently, she is able to question authority and not scared to take risks. Her life changes dramatically when both her parents are killed and she discovers her real identity. Informed that she is the only one who can change the fate of women in Gilead, she is persuaded to be wooed by the Pearl Girls, who are given permission to go to Canada to recruit new vulnerable women to join Gilead.
'The Testaments' has the same well-defined and powerful narrative as 'The Handmaid’s Tale' and continues to shock with Atwood’s depiction of a society where young girls are groomed for marriage with a single role, to run a household and reproduce. The Den felt the outcome was more predictable, as if Atwood wanted a conclusion for Gilead and for “good to win over evil.” Atwood said in conversation that she wanted to leave the reader with hope and optimism. This is not necessarily a bad outcome, it just raises less questions and unsettling feelings of discomfort which was so evident in 'The Handmaid’s Tale'. And ultimately this book answers the question of how Gilead’s demise came about, which let’s face it, everyone in the Den wanted to know.
The Den thoroughly enjoyed this compelling and gripping sequel which offers a wider dynamic to Gilead and a more encouraging and conclusive outcome. In September last year, the Den were privileged to see Margaret Atwood in conversation at the National Theatre - with excerpts from the book read by Ann Dowd, Sally Hawkins and Lily James – seems impossible to imagine now, rather like these iconic books, you never know what is around the corner...