The Testaments: A worthy return to Gilead

The Testaments by Margaret Atwood science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviewsThe Testaments by Margaret Atwood science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviewsThe Testaments by Margaret Atwood

Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale is a great book, deservedly earning its accolades as a masterpiece and a contemporary classic as it brilliantly weds her substantial gifts as both a poet and a prose writer in the service of one of the most potentially powerful genres, dystopian literature. Her sequel, The Testaments (2019), is not a great book. But it is a good one (and really, Atwood has more than one great book to her credit, let’s not get greedy). Fair warning, spoilers ahead for those who have not yet read The Handmaid’s Tale and one kinda-sorta spoiler (explained below) for The Testaments.

The Testaments is set roughly a decade and a half after the events of The Handmaid’s Tale, and thus moves on, save for one noteworthy exception, to a whole new cast of characters. That exception is Aunt Lydia, who here is one of the three points of view conveying the story. The others belong to two younger women. (Warning:  I’m going to use one of the girls’ real name/identity here, which is technically spoilery, but it’s so telegraphed, so obvious, and is made clear so early, I can’t think Atwood meant it to be a reveal to anyone but the character herself, but if you care about those things stop here.) (No, really.) (OK.)

One of those is Agnes, born and raised in Gilead itself in the home of one of the more powerful commanders. The other POV belongs to a grown up “Baby Nicole,” who had been smuggled out of Gilead 15 years ago and has become a symbolic touchstone of conflict between Gilead and Canada ever since (symbolic because up to now nobody knew who she actually was). And yes, if you do the math it’s pretty clear whose child Nicole is.

Lydia’s point of view is by far the most powerful and effective one, chilling and tense and thrumming with anger and potential violence as it moves between present-day events and an account of how Lydia, a judge before the coup that put Gilead into power, became Aunt Lydia, one of the four “Founders” of an authoritarian regime that treated women in such horrific fashion. It was always a mystery, to both readers of The Handmaid’s Tale and the female characters within it, how women could do what they did to other women. What is so icily terrifying here is how easily that happens — a few days of horrific treatment, a regular close-up display of the brutal and typically fatal punishment for those who don’t go along with the new regime, and a simple vow to survive is all it takes. Complicity, as history teaches us and Atwood portrays, is a dully regular occurrence. And once one has stepped on that path in order to survive, it’s hard to turn off of it for the very same reason. Or as Lydia puts it: “I made choices, and then, having made them, I had fewer choices. Two roads diverged in a yellow wood, and I took the one most traveled by. It was littered with corpses, as such roads are. But as you will have noticed, my own corpse is not among them.” Or, earlier and more succinctly: “in times like ours, there are only two directions: up or plummet.”

Margaret Atwood

Margaret Atwood

That isn’t to say, though, that Aunt Lydia throws herself into her new role happily. Atwood doesn’t do “simple.” So while Aunt Lydia inhabits her role fully and is more than good at it, beneath the stonily aloof surface seethes a boiling, frothing fury and desire for vengeance and, for she was a judge after all, justice. From the very start of her complicity (“giving up was the new normal, and I have to say it was catching”), she is already planning her retaliation: “I will get you back for this. I don’t care how long it takes or how much shit I have to eat in the meantime, but I will do it.” It’s that mission that drives the plot of this novel.

And plot-driven is a good description of it, certainly more so than its predecessor, where we spent so much time within the mind of its narrator Offred. The point-of-view impact was bound to be diluted somewhat by its being split amongst three narrators. But truthfully, the drop-off from Aunt Lydia’s older, complex, more self-aware, more jaded and honed-to-a-bittersharp-edge, to the younger, more naïve, less thoughtful ones of Agnes and Nicole is pretty steep. In my mind’s eye, I picture Atwood leaning forward, on the edge of her seat, wringing her hands and cackling with glee as she creates Lydia’s sharply wry commentary (few do sharply wry like Atwood; here is Lydia on a commemorative statue: “… it’s not a great success. Too crowded. I would have preferred more emphasis on myself … moss has sprouted in my damper crevices”). When it comes to the other two points of view, I see her leaning back and dutifully, steadfastly using Agnes and Nicole to move the plot along, stopping now and then to make herself a sandwich or scratch the cat, becoming, if not bored, a little restless, all while jonesing for another bit of Lydia composition.

Not that those Agnes/Nicole sections are poorly written, or the plot badly constructed. Just the opposite. Atwood probably couldn’t write two or three bad sentences in a row if she were thumb-typing on a phone in a dark cave she’d just fallen into, all while being mauled by the angry grizzly she’d so rudely awakened, and the book is an absolute page-turner — tensely compelling and expertly paced, with just a few forgivable shortcuts or coincidences to ease its way forward. It’s also a broader plot than The Handmaid’s Tale, less claustrophobic in setting and atmosphere as it moves us not only around different environs in Gilead, but also sets various portions in the border areas and Canada. The drop-off therefore isn’t in readability or writing ability, but in the compelling nature of the voice.

Lydia’s voice also is able to add another layer the other two cannot simply by nature of her age and experience, which allow her to contrast Gilead with what had come before. In other words, with our time, and this allows for some starkly clear commentary on our own world, as when she berates herself for being “Stupid stupid stupid: I’d believed all that claptrap about life, liberty, democracy, and the right of the individual I’d soaked up at law school. These were eternal verities and we would always defend them. I’d depended on that, as if on a magic charm.” Or, again in the wry succinct way Atwood has mastered: “Penises. Them again.”Book 1

I confess I laughed aloud at that last one. And there’s certainly more humor in The Testaments than The Handmaid’s Tale. It’s in all ways a lighter book, even as it details equally horrific acts and structures. Part of that is the way it opens up in setting and voice. Part of that is as well that two of those voices belong to young girls, who are generally more optimistic, and who also don’t have the jaded bitterness of an earlier, better life to compare their current existence to. It’s also more optimistic in that we see how even within the awful strictures of Gilead, women, despite their seeming powerlessness, work to do what they can for other women, something we saw little of (if memory serves) in the first book. And so girls are shunted out of extremely bad into merely bad, men who do worse evils are punished more than those who perform lesser ones. Again, it’s Aunt Lydia who nails the concise pragmatism of it: “I am a great proponent of better. In the absence of best. Which is how we live now.”

I noted at the top this wasn’t a “great book,” but it does have a truly great character inhabiting it, and while that would have been enough to make it immensely readable, Atwood brings as well her usual ease and skill with regard to other elements such as plot and language. So if The Testaments is a lighter book than The Handmaid’s Tale, and therefore also a slighter one, that’s OK. Judged on its own, it more than suffices.

~Bill Capossere


The Testaments by Margaret Atwood science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviewsI agree with almost everything Bill said (so eloquently here) except that I wouldn’t use the word “lighter” to describe The Testaments. To me, it didn’t feel lighter.  Perhaps I did smile more while reading The Testaments than I did while reading The Handmaid’s Tale, but that was more in appreciation of Lydia’s dark humor — something that was missing from the The Handmaid’s Tale — than out of any sense of lightness.

As Bill mentioned, The Testaments answers the question of how women like Aunt Lydia could betray their entire sex. This was something I was wondering about while reading The Handmaid’s Tale. I found Atwood’s explanation believable and chilling.

I listened to Random House Audio’s version of The Testaments and it’s spectacular. The narrators are Derek Jacobi, Mae Whitman, Ann Dowd, Bryce Dallas Howard, Tantoo Cardinal, and Margaret Atwood herself. Each of the POV characters has a different narrator. I especially loved Ann Dowd, who did Aunt Lydia’s chapters; she was perfectly cast. I  recommend this version!

~Kat Hooper

Published in September 2019. SHORTLISTED FOR THE BOOKER PRIZE. Margaret Atwood’s dystopian masterpiece, The Handmaid’s Tale, has become a modern classic—and now she brings the iconic story to a dramatic conclusion in this riveting sequel. More than fifteen years after the events of The Handmaid’s Tale, the theocratic regime of the Republic of Gilead maintains its grip on power, but there are signs it is beginning to rot from within. At this crucial moment, the lives of three radically different women converge, with potentially explosive results. Two have grown up as part of the first generation to come of age in the new order. The testimonies of these two young women are joined by a third voice: a woman who wields power through the ruthless accumulation and deployment of secrets. As Atwood unfolds The Testaments, she opens up the innermost workings of Gilead as each woman is forced to come to terms with who she is, and how far she will go for what she believes.

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BILL CAPOSSERE, who's been with us since June 2007, lives in Rochester NY, where he is an English adjunct by day and a writer by night. His essays and stories have appeared in Colorado Review, Rosebud, Alaska Quarterly, and other literary journals, along with a few anthologies, and been recognized in the "Notable Essays" section of Best American Essays. His children's work has appeared in several magazines, while his plays have been given stage readings at GEVA Theatre and Bristol Valley Playhouse. When he's not writing, reading, reviewing, or teaching, he can usually be found with his wife and son on the frisbee golf course or the ultimate frisbee field.

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KAT HOOPER, who started this site in June 2007, earned a Ph.D. in neuroscience and psychology at Indiana University (Bloomington) and now teaches and conducts brain research at the University of North Florida. When she reads fiction, she wants to encounter new ideas and lots of imagination. She wants to view the world in a different way. She wants to have her mind blown. She loves beautiful language and has no patience for dull prose, vapid romance, or cheesy dialogue. She prefers complex characterization, intriguing plots, and plenty of action. Favorite authors are Jack Vance, Robin Hobb, Kage Baker, William Gibson, Gene Wolfe, Richard Matheson, and C.S. Lewis.

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