Thirty-five years is a pretty serious wait for a sequel, but even when Margaret Atwood finally announced that she would be reviving The Handmaid’s Tale for a new book, fans were caught between excitement and sheer terror. The original novel ended with the Handmaid, Offred, being loaded into the back of a van with no explanation as to why, leaving readers to wonder if she was headed to prison, freedom, or death. Now the insanely popular Hulu tv show of the same name has largely answered that question, but we are still left with the overarching question does Gilead fall? And if so, how does Offred play into it?
This sequel was supposed to answer all our questions, or at least that was Atwood’s promise last year when she announced it’s release. But still we were anxious, what if the new novel tainted the perfection of the original in a parrot of the Go Set A Watchman situation we have never fully recovered from. There would be no turning back.
Here is where I must admit my bias towards this author. Margaret Atwood is considered a Canadian national treasure. Chances are if you’ve gone to school almost anywhere in our country, you’ve read through her novels, short stories, poems, fairy tales, comics, and whatever else she ever wrote. That being said, on this side of the border we were ready to hype up The Testaments whether or it lived up to the original. It would be the patriotic thing to do. Thankfully, Atwood spared us from this perjury. Her new novel, The Testaments is truly an insightful and worthy continuation of the story.
Let’s be clear though, the style of this sequel does not mirror the original. The Handmaid’s Tale is a more visual and metaphoric book, but that was done deliberately because Atwood wanted to show that those who lack power, like the Handmaids, tend to observe more than they act. Switching gears, The Testaments are about the personal narratives of three women as they try to understand and survive Gilead in a more thriller-like storytelling sequence that is less about describing the theocracy and more about explaining its downfall.
First off, save yourself some heartache and just remember that Atwood achieved her stellar level of literary fame through her devilishly unpredictable writing style. After waiting all this time to get the final confirmation of what happened to Offred, she is nowhere to be found in this sequel. Instead, as if to accentuate this void, the story flips perspectives between her first child Agnes after she was adopted by a prominent but dangerous Commander’s family, to Daisy, her second daughter also known as the stolen Baby Nicole who lives far away in Canada, and finally to the notorious Aunt Lydia as her true intentions are finally revealed.
Jumping from each of their distinct plots, Atwood expertly builds the clear-cut limited world each woman inhabits, and allows her readers to writhe in suspense for the appropriate amount of time, before smashing them together in an ultimately satisfying conclusion wherein Aunt Lydia helps both of Offred’s daughters escape Gilead with incriminating information that will help to bring about its downfall. Agnes and Daisy are even reunited with their mother after they barely survive the voyage. Who are we kidding, this was more than satisfying. Atwood started this series by haunting us with a dystopian nightmare and then with this sequel decided to deliver an against-all-odds fairytale ending. The woman is truly unknowable.
Critics have already begun to harp on how unrealistic this happy ending seems compared with that of the original. Putting aside the depressing fact that these people see happiness and freedom as unrealistic, you must notice that Atwood kept her promise. If The Handmaid’s Tale was reflective of society at the time it was written in 1985, then The Testaments is meant to be our own mirror. Where the first book served to warn us of a hellish potential future, this new addition to the story is a call to arms trying to rile us into action to keep that world from materializing.
The three women profiled, one who grew up in Gilead, one who only knows about it from afar, and lastly one who helped build the hellish reality, find ways to undermine the Gilead caste and do their own part within their distinct roles to pursue justice. With a very limited opportunity, Agnes rejects her prearranged marriage and the role of a wife and mother and takes refuge in Ardua Hall where she trains to become an Aunt and is finally granted permission to read. Likewise, her half-sister Daisy, after the murder of her adoptive parents and the revelation of her true identity, decides to team up with the underground Mayday operations to infiltrate Gilead through the Pearl-Girl missionaries.
Which brings us to another major Atwood-style plot twist. Namely that the seemingly villainous and brutal Aunt Lydia that we witnessed in the first book is really just a well-crafted and purposeful facade. We thought she was largely a background character who existed to enforce Gilead’s draconian laws and keep the Handmaids in line by any means necessary. But in this new novel we understand that with everything that she does, Aunt Lydia has an end game in mind. A former judge, she was abducted and tortured until she agreed to join the Aunts at which point she swore she would rise in the hierarchy until she could seek revenge against her own tormentor, Commander Judd, and destroy Gilead. Though she is widely considered a practical Saint among the population, she is secretly gathering information to bring down the entire country and does so through Offred’s daughters. Using this character in such a turn-about way Atwood really demonstrates that we can each do our own individual part to combat tyranny and to never assume to know someone’s motives.
The entire book is a harrowing whirlwind of suspense that will set you on edge and then somehow also make you feel hopeful by the end of it. Which in this era of you-know-who, is always welcome and needed. Margaret Atwood really does not produce novels just for fame or royalties, she waited this long to revive The Handmaid’s Tale because the story did not need to be continued until now. What she did with The Testaments was assure us that even in the most horrific intolerable circumstances people have to fight back, do what they can, and things can get better and justice can be done. If nothing else, it is a solemn reminder that no matter what our position, our opportunities, our fears, there is no excuse not to at least try.