The Testaments: A Novel
- By Margaret Atwood
- Nan A. Talese
- 432 pp.
- Reviewed by Robert Allen Papinchak
- September 17, 2019
The three-decade wait for this sequel was more than worth it.
Since publishing The Handmaid’s Tale almost 35 years ago, Margaret Atwood’s classic dystopian novel of fanaticism has been a movie, a ballet, an opera, and, most recently, a multiple-award-winning TV series. All that time, Atwood (a multiple award winner herself) has resisted writing a sequel. That resistance ended with this spine-chilling follow-up, The Testaments, already a 2019 Booker nominee.
Impatient but persistent readers have asked, “Where’s Offred?” What happened to her after she was herded into that van, pregnant, at the end of the first novel? And what about those left behind? Has Aunt Lydia, the martinet of the Gilead set, continued to wield her tyrannical taser? Which Commanders now rule? Is there subterfuge in the land?
Most of these questions are answered — some more readily than others — in the terrifying testimonies that make up the three narrative perspectives of the new novel.
That is the inventive structure of The Testaments. While Offred was the only narrator of The Handmaid’s Tale, there is a trio of distinct voices in this one. Aunt Lydia is the primary protagonist, and there are two other initially unidentified narrators, Witness 369A and Witness 369B.
It would be a major spoiler to reveal who A and B are, though many readers may sort it out before Atwood finally discloses their true identities. In fact, for much of the novel, their identities are unknown even to themselves. Suffice it to say that they could be labeled as American A and Canadian B — that’s something of a hint.
Both young women now, one has spent most of her life outside of Gilead, in Canada; the other, south of the border in the refashioned United States, the land of a totalitarian, theocratic dictatorship where women’s rights have been replaced with servile duties that include arranged marriages and forced fertilization. A and B will eventually unite for the book’s heart-stopping conclusion.
But from the beginning (about 15 years after the end of the earlier novel), it’s Aunt Lydia, now 53 years old, who controls the direction of the story and the destiny of others. In a series of entries labeled “The Ardua Hall Holograph,” she appears to be desolate and remorseful.
Is she seeking vengeance for her lost life as a lawyer and a judge? Or is she the duplicitous mouthpiece for the Commanders she serves? Is she a reliable narrator? Or should the reader be suspect of her every mea culpa utterance?
The fact that she hides her manuscript inside Cardinal John Henry Newman’s Apologia Pro Vita Sua might suggest some sympathy should be given to Lydia. Her urgent and constant appeal to a dear and unknown reader (perhaps us?) raises serious doubts about her veracity. Is she complicit in a coup? Or conspiring to throw her net wider?
It is, after all, what Aunts do. Their vocation is secrets, lies, cunning, and deceit. Atwood adroitly juggles all possibilities, as she does with the other two narrators.
According to the “Transcript of Witness Testimony 369A,” said Witness is a privileged child, a “precious flower” of Gilead. Her world begins to fray after she learns that her parents — Commander Kyle and his wife, Tabitha — are not her true parents.
Tabitha has told her a fairytale about finding her in an enchanted forest and, with the power of a magic ring, choosing her from among a group of girls. The child known first as Agnes Jemima is lucky. Until she isn’t. She plays with a dollhouse fashioned after her real house.
Because her father is in a high-powered position, the household has three Marthas who tend to their every need. She has three (three is a significant number throughout the novel) close friends. What she comes to realize is that, as a female, she does not have freedom — freedom of choice, freedom to read, freedom to ride the swings in the park. She is not allowed to ask about the Handmaids, who play a significant role in her seemingly perfect world.
After Tabitha becomes ill and dies (end of one fairytale), Agnes begins to seek the truth about her fraudulent life.
The “Transcript of Witness Testimony 369B” also discloses a life cloaked in duplicity. As with A, B’s parents — Neil and Melanie — are not her parents. The family has lived in Canada, running a used-clothing shop, the Clothes Hound, which is a cover for other, perhaps seditious, activities.
Called Daisy, this witness also has two other names (there’s that three again), one of which will expose the truth about her previous life and alter her destiny. After Neil and Melanie die, Daisy finds herself tied to Agnes. They are related in more ways than they could possibly know.
As the stories of Lydia, 369A, and 369B begin to intersect, intertwine, and affect an internecine battle in the world of Gilead — past and present — Atwood, as expected, deftly develops the numerous, carefully foreshadowed plot surprises with her saber-sharp prose and clever wit.
She sometimes relies upon myths, fables, and biblical references to enhance the narratives. Aesop’s “Fox and Cat” offers a scathing metaphor for much of the action of the novel, as does “Bluebeard’s chamber of defunct brides,” and the story in Judges 19-21 of the “concubine in 12 pieces.”
Everything comes full circle as the final section approaches. The Testaments ends, as did The Handmaid’s Tale, with an academic symposium that provides the framework for both books. Set in 2197, the Thirteenth Symposium on Gilead Studies trenchantly discusses the truthfulness of the documents that have preceded it in the novel. There are misgivings about the authenticity and accurateness of Lydia’s holograph but firm acceptance of the Witnesses’ testimonies.
Separately, the novels are exemplary cautionary tales of a brilliantly imagined world that is all too real. Each stands alone, but reading The Handmaid’s Tale first informs The Testaments. Together, they are a remarkable diptych of disaster, a monumental achievement by a revered writer. They are a blaring warning for what might happen here.
The Testaments is an ideal sequel to an already perfect novel. Its brilliance is that it manages to tell an absorbing story at the same time it provides a haunting and chilling lesson for the world today. Aunt Lydia warns the reader, whom she imagines as a “wanderer in a dark wood,” that “it’s about to get darker.” It may be necessary to heed her counsel that “it will get worse.”
Or perhaps it already has.
Robert Allen Papinchak, a former university English professor, has reviewed a range of fiction in newspapers, magazines, journals, and online, including the New York Times Book Review, the Washington Post Book World, the Chicago Tribune, the Los Angeles Review of Books, the Seattle Times, USA Today, People, the Writer, Publishers Weekly, Kirkus Reviews, the National Book Review, the New York Journal of Books, World Literature Today, the Millions, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the Strand Magazine, Mystery Scene Magazine, Suspense, and others. He has been a judge for Publishers Weekly’s BookLife Creative Writing Contest and the Nelson Algren Literary Prize for the short story. His own fiction has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and received a STORY award. He is the author of Sherwood Anderson: A Study of the Short Fiction.