by Grant Cousineau
Since the publication of The Handmaid’s Tale, readers have spent thirty-five years asking Margaret Atwood one question: “And then what happened?”
Written on trains, ships, and park benches, The Testaments is, at long last, her response. Winner of the 2019 Man Booker Prize, named the Best Book of 2019 by Amazon and the Best Fiction Book of 2019 by Goodreads, this sequel picks up the story fifteen years after the original events, and it manages to deliver an even more compelling and urgent narrative.
This time around, we get to see the Republic of Gilead from multiple perspectives. Aunt Lydia – a former judge and current highest-ranking female oppressor in Gilead – tells her story via handwritten notes discovered in an old edition of Apologia Pro Vita Sua, Cardinal John Henry Newman’s religious defense against those of the Church of England. We also get witness accounts from a girl named Daisy, who lives in free Canada, and Agnes Jemima, daughter of a Commander, and an unnamed Handmaid, set to be married.
The juxtaposition of these narratives plumb the dark depths of Gilead’s Puritan theocracy, where Bibles are rewritten and girls are conditioned into believing they are only “snares and enticements” of men, able to make them “drunk with lust, so that they’d stagger and lurch and topple over the verge.”
There were swings in one of the parks, but because of our skirts, which might be blown up by the wind and then looked into, we were not to think of taking such a liberty as a swing. Only boys could taste that freedom; only they could swoop and soar; only they could be airborne.
As Aunt Lydia warned women in The Handmaid’s Tale, “This may not seem ordinary to you now, but after a time it will.” Agnes is born into that first generation in which the persecution of women seems completely ordinary.
The Testaments was built upon the same axiom of the original story – every event has a precedent in human history. But in creating “literature of witness,” this narrative is refitted for the new world order. She draws from current events of the present day: populist revolts, governmental destruction of archival records, and, of course, the influence of “fake news.”
Despite its politics and swaths of literary elegance, The Testaments is, surprisingly, a spy thriller at its core. As corruption, lust, and murder rot the ranks of Gilead, a mole keeps count. A Mayday agent, working from the inside, risks everything in the hope of possibly toppling this colossal empire. “My larger fear: that all my efforts will prove futile, and Gilead will last for a thousand years,” she worries. “We’re stretched thin, all of us; we vibrate; we quiver, we’re always on the alert. Reign of terror, they used to say, but terror does not exactly reign. Instead it paralyzes. Hence the unnatural quiet.”
It’s easy for outsiders like Daisy to see the problems within Gilead’s core cultural beliefs. But to Agnes, fully indoctrinated from birth, her country’s problems are not so simply diagnosed. “I wanted to believe,” she says, wondering how Gilead might survive. “Indeed, I longed to; and, in the end, how much belief comes from longing?”
This book is a reminder of the impermanence of freedom. Things can always get worse, and more often than we’re willing to admit it, they do. The Testaments delivers this message like the loud, clear peal of church bells. But it also holds much hope, knowing that every pit has its bottom. Going into this, we know that Gilead cannot last forever – because nothing ever does. All that goes unprevented is not also uncurable, if only those who bear witness to those pains – those cancers – are willing to fight for it.
In the end, Atwood asks, what’s to be done with a country that’s lost its way? Do you abandon it? Burn it all down? Or do you attempt to salvage what you can?