This review is going to get me into trouble, at home if nowhere else. Because The Testaments was such a disappointment! While living up to the standards of her earlier works was always going to be difficult, some elements of the novel were reminiscent of fan-fic – based in the world so chillingly described in The Handmaid’s Tale, but unevenly written with poorly conceived characters and an implausible plot.
Of course I could self-censor, write about the things in the novel that I did like – Gilead is no less a scary dystopia than it was before, and of course Atwood hasn’t become a bad writer overnight – but what would be the point of that? If this blog has any purpose at all it is to act as a place where I record my authentic impressions of what I read, not what I am supposed to think. Having said that, I also owe any author, let alone one of such distinguished status as Margaret Atwood, the effort of trying to recognise the strengths in their work. So let’s start there.
Atwood’s political analysis of the oppression of women hasn’t fundamentally changed from Handmaid’s, but it remains as sharp as ever. For example, where she identifies what made women particularly vulnerable when Gilead first took over:
“All that was necessary was a law degree and a uterus: a lethal combination.”
Young women growing up in Gilead are brain-washed into thinking their bodies are the source of all sin:
“We were precious flowers that had to be kept safely inside glass houses, or else we would be ambushed and our petals would be torn off and our treasure would be stolen and we would be ripped apart and trampled by the ravenous men who might lurk around any corner, out there in the wide sharp-edged sin-ridden world.”
What has changed from Handmaid’s is that Atwood identifies the role of women as instruments of their own oppression. Some women are zealots who seem to genuinely believe men are the stronger sex who have the right to control women’s bodies; others simply do what they have to do to survive. As Aunt Lydia tells us:
“Two roads diverged in a yellow wood, and I took the one most travelled by. It was littered with corpses, as such roads are. But as you will have noticed, my own corpse is not among them.”
The threats to women’s autonomy remain as significant as they were when Handmaid’s was written – but arguably that just makes the original novel all the more pertinent rather than requiring a sequel. Atwood’s reasons for writing this follow-up may well be as much to do with the success of the television adaptation as a burning desire to explore further the complexities of Gilead. I can’t blame her for that, and to be fair she doesn’t just write Handmaid’s Tale 2.
The original novel has an ambiguous ending. We know, due to the appendix, that Gilead doesn’t survive, but we don’t know how the regime ends, and we know nothing about the fate of the central character, Offred. We don’t even know her real name. Atwood has returned to Gilead to answer some of these questions. The novel uses the always popular multi-narrator approach, threading the testimonies of three key women. We hear more from Aunt Lydia about the circumstances in which Gilead and its institutions were founded, how it survived despite conflict on all its borders, and how eventually it fell. I haven’t worked out a clear timeline for the events of the novel, but the whole period seems little more than a few decades from creation to fall.
We also learn about life outside Gilead, in Canada and elsewhere, and the efforts of Mayday, an underground organisation, to rescue women from Gilead. Their work is consciously modelled on the Underground Railroad.
As well as Aunt Lydia’s narrative the novel interweaves testimonies – testaments – by two teenage girls, Agnes, the adopted daughter of Commander Kyle and his wife Tabitha, and Daisy, growing up in Toronto with her adoptive parents, Neil and Melanie, who run a second-hand clothes store. The three narrators alternate in short chapters which gave considerable pace to the narrative. It was obvious early on that the secrets about Daisy and Agnes’s parentage would be revealed, and how the threads of the narrative would eventually join.
Aunt Lydia is the dominant character in the novel – shrewd, knowledgeable, and a survivor. She is not above suspicion, but is able to manipulate (a little too easily) the characters around her to protect herself, while all the time working to undermine Gilead. The teenage girls show two completely different views of Gilead – Agnes has been born and raised in the country and has adopted its worldview unquestioningly. She has been taught that women must cover up to avoid inflaming male passions, and that reading is a source of sin. Her body is dangerous and she must be married at an early engage to fulfil her purpose of having children. She is profoundly religious and keeps her faith even when her belief in the ideals of Gilead are shaken. Daisy on the other hand, having been raised in Canada, is an atheist and is opposed to everything Gilead stands for. She happily volunteers to go undercover into Gilead to recover some damning information about the regime, despite the obvious dangers.
Despite its status as a feminist novel of ideas, The Testaments works most effectively as an action novel. The climax of the narrative features a breathless escape from Gilead, with speedboats and helicopters thrown in for good measure, secret information hidden in a micro-dot (how very 1970’s!) hidden under one of the girl’s skin, disguised by a GOD/LOVE tattoo.
Atwood’s skill as a writer is without question, but her ability to craft a phrase stands out:
“The truth can cause a lot of trouble for those who are not supposed to know it.”
“how easily a hand becomes a fist.”
“No one wants to die…but some people don’t want to live in any of the ways that are allowed.”
That skill falters slightly when she writes as a teenage girl, where an element of inauthenticity appears. Would a teenage girl, even when writing in later life, write “Nobody is any authority on the fucks other people give“? Much quoted (in reviews) phrases such as “You don’t believe the sky is falling until a chunk of it falls on you” or “As they say, history does not repeat itself, but it rhymes” sound quite impressive on a first reading but I am not sure they actually mean anything.
So what’s the problem with The Testaments? I’ve touched on some of the issues above. But my main concern was with the action elements of the novel. Perhaps they would work better on television, but on the page they came across as a parody of a spy novel. What is more they didn’t really make any sense. I found Daisy’s decision to return to Gilead disguised as a Pearl Girl (a missionary) completely unconvincing, and Commander Judd’s decision to keep quite about her return was baffling. Of all the people you would send back to Gilead to recover some vital intelligence, Daisy would be the very last choice. And once her return to Gilead was known why the Commander would keep it quite and allow her to escape back to Canada I have no idea.
Other elements such as the casually announced death of one of the minor characters suggested a rush to end the novel and tie up loose ends without thinking through the detail. There were other signs of this, such as how trainee aunts, totally illiterate when they arrive at Ardua Hall in their mid teens, are fluent readers in a few months despite starting with modestly coloured-in Dick and Jane books.
Despite all this I enjoyed reading this novel. I recognise I should probably consider it on its own merits rather than as the sequel to an iconic classic. It’s ironic that this won the Booker rather than the original, which is probably the judges’ way of correcting history. I am pretty sure that Handmaid’s will be read in decades if not centuries to come as an important statement of protest at society’s treatment of women, while The Testaments will be remembered as a less interesting addendum.