The Testaments by Margaret Atwood
What is it?
The Testaments is the long-awaited sequel to Margaret Atwood’s infamous 1985 novel, The Handmaid’s Tale. While Handmaid’s has been holding territory on university reading lists and in book clubs as a staple of feminist literature for decades, Atwood’s infamous novel re-emerged into our cultural psyche during Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign which, for some deeply mysterious reason, people have associated with the slow degradation of women’s rights in the United States of America. The reason why of course remains a mystery. Thirty-five years later, the red dress of the handmaids has become a symbol of female oppression at Women’s Marches and protests around the world, and Atwood’s novel has been adapted into an enormously popular TV series on Channel 4 and Hulu starring Elisabeth Moss as Offred/June Osborne. Published in September 2019, The Testaments throws us back into Gilead fifteen years later.
What is it about?
It is fifteen years since June found herself escorted into the back of a van by the authoritative Eyes, with no idea where she will be transported to next: “And so I step up, into the darkness within; or else the light.”
This is where I advise, if you’ve skipped the TV adaptation, you watch it. All of it. Because June and Gilead have evolved and grown into a world far beyond the one which we left at the end of Handmaid’s. Names. Characters. Storylines. Crucial details. It’s all in the TV show and the references won’t be quite so smooth if you’re out of the loop.
Fifteen years later, we’re not met by June. We’re met by the voices of three women: one in the authoritative drawl of Aunt Lydia in The Ardua Hall Holograph; one in the almost subdued, obedient voice of a young women named Agnes in the Transcript of Witness Testimony 369A; and finally one distinctly sassier, more disobedient, stroppier voice belonging to a young woman brought up in Canada, ‘Baby’ Nicole in the Transcript of Witness Testimony 369B.
How did it make me feel?
Like a lot of Handmaid’s fans, I counted down the days to the 10th September 2019 for Testaments to be released. I stared longingly at the black and green Tube posters on my commute. I watched Instagram Lives and listened to podcasts recorded at Piccadilly Waterstones where feminist speakers and authors and Handmaid’s fans alike gathered to listen to Atwood herself read the first few pages of her book. I bought my copy on 11th September 2019, read half of it sporadically on Tube journeys and in between waitressing shifts in the days that followed and then… put it back on my shelf, unfinished.
Blasphemy, I know!
Imagine for me, just for a second, that Testaments is that guy you know you should be dating. He’s brilliant. He’s intelligent. He’s attractive. He has a good job, his own flat, only drinks at the weekend and totally and completely respects you. But… you don’t fancy him. That’s how I feel about Testaments. It took a global pandemic, a lockdown and a quarantine for me to re-pick up and finish a book by my favourite author. I’m gutted and I feel terrible.
I love bits of it. I love the complicated is Aunt Lydia a friend or a foe narrative. I love the insight Agnes gives us into the world of daughters and wives in Gilead, a story we were lacking from June’s Handmaid’s narrative. I love Nicole’s association with the rebellious Mayday group who saves Gileadean refugees and helps to build them new lives in Canada. I love the details of the Pearl Girls and the disastrous marriages to Commanders.
I think what I struggle with is that there’s not really a villain. In Handmaid’s, it felt like everyone was. One minute, you couldn’t trust Serena Joy. Then Fred Waterford. Maybe even Nick. Aunt Lydia was a brute we loved to hate. It was June against enemies at every turn and she battled them all. In Testaments, we have the system; we have Gilead as our enemy. But there’s no one specific we can really turn our hate towards, and I think that is where the book falters. I understand in life the system is often the enemy, but it doesn’t make for a great story. We want a villain. Or, at least, I do.
Where is it available?
In our new weird quarantined life, a plethora of local independent bookshops are doing home deliveries! Have a look for your local, read Testaments and tell me I’m wrong. Please, I love being wrong.
Atwood, I still love you.
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