Margaret Atwood returns to Gilead more than fifteen years after the events at the conclusion of The Handmaid’s Tale. Broken up by three narrators, The Testaments tells of the collapse of Gilead and the events that led to its demise.
When Margaret Atwood announced a sequel to her 1985 novel The Handmaid’s Tale, the collective literary world audibly gasped. It seemed like the perfect time for a trip back to Gilead, especially on the heels of the wildly successful TV adaptation coupled with the current political climate and the #MeToo movement. However, the one question no one seemed to ask once news got out about the book’s publication – is there a story worth telling? That’s not really for me to decide. I am fully aware that as a white male, it’s not my place to decide whether a book about the systematic oppression of women is “necessary”, but I can at least let you know whether or not I enjoyed it.
And I did, by the way. Quite a bit, actually.
That said, dystopian fiction in 2019 is a strange breed. With an endlessly depressing twenty-four hour news cycle, do we really want to read about an alternative reality hellscape upheld by religious zealots? It’s hard to say. It’s chilling that we have people in power in the first world that want to roll back existing laws that were made to protect a woman’s right to body autonomy. The thing is that there will always be people with this ideology – the sadder thing is that they keep getting elected.
Is The Testaments as harsh and uncompromising as its predecessor? In some ways it is, sure. But you have to keep in mind, we know what we’re getting into with a sequel, you can’t rip the bandaid off a second time. In saying that, many of the hardest scenes to get through in The Testaments are just as harrowing as those depicted in the original. Atwood’s descriptions of the anxiety that comes alongside unwanted sexual advances were tough reads. Necessary, but tough nonetheless.
Of the three narrators, I found Aunt Lydia the most compelling. That isn’t to shortchange the other two, I just found Lydia’s story carried more weight as without her, the whole story sort of falls apart. While Lydia’s was told through a letter she had written, the other two stories were told through transcripts of testimonies. Maybe it felt more personal? All three have their own traumas to speak of, so it’s not like one is an easier read than the other.
While it would have been OK to allow The Handmaid’s Tale to exist on its own, evidently Atwood had grown tired of being asked about what had ultimately happened after her novel had ended. The important thing is that this doesn’t feel like a cash-grab. It feels like a story worth telling and it certainly wraps up any loose threads that may have been dangling following the end of the original book.