“Fail [the test] and your commitment to the one true way would be voided. Pass it, and the blood was on your hands. As someone once said, We must all hang together or we will all hang separately.”
-Margaret Atwood, The Testaments
Normally hearing that your train is being held at a red signal for the foreseeable is the last thing anyone wants to hear, but not if you are halfway through The Testaments and are dreading having to get off the train before finishing it. As with Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, The Testaments is one of those rare books that offers chilling commentary of society and politics yet compels you to read it in one sitting – and at 415 pages this is an achievement.
Set about 15 years after the events of The Handmaid’s Tale, Atwood is free from the usual constraints of sequels and avoids using the voice of Offred. The narration is all framed as testimony, that of Aunt Lydia, of Agnes a girl growing up in Gilead, and of Daisy a girl growing up in Canada. This narrative choice permits Atwood to give three very different views of Gilead, yet she manages to connect the narratives so that the reader can start to consider life affected by such a regime from different angles. The Testaments’ temporal setting is also a skilful way to give Atwood full control of the work. Whilst taking some fan ideas, Atwood has brilliantly changed the way Gilead, The Handmaid’s Tale, and its TV series should be received. The Testaments is not informed by the TV series and instead acts to set a destination that the series must reach.
The Testaments is partly narrated by Aunt Lydia, who is humanised almost to the point of sympathy, leading us to question how far individuals will go to survive such regimes. Yet, this is not a book without hope. As with The Handmaid’s Tale, it ends with a symposium hundreds of years later, a method to reassure us that the cruel regime does fall. However, the title and the framing of Agnes and Daisy’s narrations as witness testimonies, bring to mind the real atrocities, and the complex task of finding the truth and subsequently trying to punish crimes.
For a book quite so hyped it would be easy to be disappointed even by an outstanding novel, but Atwood does not disappoint. As Atwood mentioned in conversation with Mary Beard, on the TV show Front Row Late, even nail polish the same shade as the striking green of the cover sold out. Its popularity in part is due to an experienced publicity team, and Atwood’s prior reputation for brilliant writing, but primarily because of Atwood’s sage-like ability to nail the Zeitgeist.
When The Handmaid’s Tale came out, no one could have imagined that a man who was reported to have said of women: “You can do anything. Grab them by the pussy. You can do anything,” could ever become President of the United States. Similarly, the description in The Handmaid’s Tale that there “wasn’t even any rioting in the streets” when the Constitution was suspended, makes you consider how easy it has been for the UK Prime Minister to trample over convention, suspend parliament illegally, and threaten to ignore laws. The Testaments cannot be read without considering the current socio-political climate.
I would, of course, recommend you read The Handmaid’s Tale first, but it is not necessary. The Testaments is fully able to stand on its own as a forensically astute examination of collaboration and internal resistance within autocratic regimes. Aunt Lydia is humanised brilliantly, nearly allowing you to forget her role in helping establish Gilead. Yet this sympathy does not stop it from being deeply disturbing at times, for whilst The Handmaid’s Tale might have been filled with brutality, The Testaments goes further, showing a far wider range of depravity and how very human it can be. Aunt Lydia might be striving to make women’s lives in Gilead better, but accepts that this will always be worse than before Gilead, and ultimately is concerned most with self-preservation. She understands what collaboration is and how regimes can so easily make the unthinkable seem like a pragmatic way to limit the damage and to survive.
“What good is it to throw yourself in front of a steamroller out of moral principles and then be crushed flat like a sock emptied of its foot? Better to fade into the crowd, the piously praising, unctuous, hate-mongering crowd. Better to hurl rocks than to have them hurled at you. Or better for your chances of staying alive.
They knew that so well, the architects of Gilead. Their kind has always known that.”
-Margaret Atwood, The Testaments
– Ed Bedford