Review: The Testaments by Margaret Atwood
No spoilers ahead.
As I walked through London this summer, I passed by bookstores filled to the brim with eye-catching navy blue and poison green displays for Margaret Atwood’s new novel, The Testaments. By the time the book was finally released I was practically salivating, not only because I am shamefully susceptible to marketing, but because this novel has been over 30 years in the making. The Testaments is Atwood’s follow-up to her 1985 classic, The Handmaid’s Tale, which, rather than being resigned to the annals of the past, is still just as relevant to society as it ever has been.
After sprinting to the bookstore to procure this newest precious treasure, I was the tiniest bit worried that I would be disappointed by the sequel to a book I consider to be a masterpiece of dystopian fiction. Three days later, I finished The Testaments and I am not ashamed to say that I cried just a little bit. Though these books were written 34 years apart, reading The Testaments brought me right back into Atwood’s world, and forced me to examine my own world just as The Handmaid’s Tale did. This book also answers the question that has been on my mind since finishing The Handmaid’s Tale: What happened to Offred?
The Testaments is told from the perspective of three women who seem worlds apart, but are deeply connected by fate. Through the testimony of a young girl named Agnes, we explore Gileadean culture from the perspective of a believer in the faith and the regime. We also get a glimpse of what Gilead looks like to outsiders from the perspective of a Canadian girl named Daisy. And most interestingly, we come to understand how an ordinary woman fought her way through a violent coup to become one of the architects of theocratic tyranny. The juiciest and most exciting part of The Testaments is its revelation of the memories of the intensely complicated Aunt Lydia.
Aunt Lydia even addresses the reader directly, forcing us to identify with her. “I picture you as a young woman, bright, ambitious,” she says. “How can I have behaved so badly, so cruelly, so stupidly? you will ask. You yourself would have never done such things! But you yourself will never have had to.”
If The Handmaid’s Tale explored the concept of freedom and freewill, The Testaments explores accountability. Each time one of the characters in this book are faced with a choice between bravery and self-preservation, the reader must ask what they would do with that choice.
Atwood takes pride in the fact that her novels only feature events that have a precedent in human history, and the success (and horror) of these books is in part that they parallel our own reality. The Testaments is gripping and intimate, and at times disturbing in its plausibility.
By the end of this book, we again get to see how the lives of our seemingly insignificant characters are recorded and remembered by emotionally detached academics and historians. Atwood argues time and time again that no matter what era we live in or what system we live under, each of us has a choice to uphold that structure or to act with courage and to challenge the status quo. The choices we make are never easy, but in the end we must live and die by them.