It’s strange how certain things stick with us and other things fade from memory. Whenever I hear the title “The Handmaid’s Tale,” one particular scene from Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel comes to mind. It’s the Ceremony, the unsettling ritual where Offred, the Handmaid, is forced to have sex with the Commander while his wife watches. None of the other horrific events in the book, like hangings and cruel treatment, hold the same power as that disturbing threesome.
Offred ponders, “Which one of us has it worse, her or me?” Both women, the fertile slaves and the barren wives, suffer in their own way. The women in Gilead – Wives, Handmaids, and domestic Marthas – are stripped of their rights. They can’t work, earn, speak up, or be alone. They are denied the right to read and find pleasure. Atwood doesn’t clarify which of these is the greater injustice.
In the introduction to the 2017 edition of The Handmaid’s Tale, Atwood writes, “‘It can’t happen here’ was not a reliable notion. Given the right circumstances, anything could happen anywhere.” Her forthcoming book, The Testaments, aims to answer the burning question that has intrigued readers since the publication of The Handmaid’s Tale in 1985: “How did it happen?”
The arrival of The Testaments is shrouded in secrecy, building anticipation among readers. Even obtaining a copy to review has been a challenge, with the book being as elusive as if I ordered it from Amazon. The hype and excitement surrounding its release are unprecedented. It’s a worldwide launch with midnight readings and Atwood’s appearances generating immense buzz. The windows of Waterstones bookshops glow with an acidic green hue.
When the book arrives, a courier appears dressed in motorcycle gear, bringing to mind the emblem of Gilead on his back. The book is delivered in a jiffy bag with the stamped words, “All things come to she who waits.” On the cover, there’s an image of a handmaid in her distinct cloak and bonnet, and on the back, a girl with a ponytail and a single earring, symbolizing servitude and freedom, modesty and rebellion. The green satin bookmark adds a nice touch, flickering between the pages like the serpent’s tail in the Garden of Eden—although, it was actually the serpent who initiated the fall, not Eve.
Readers of The Handmaid’s Tale and followers of the MGM/Hulu TV adaptation have been pondering whether The Testaments is a prequel or a sequel, and whether it measures up to its predecessor. The answer to the first question is both. The prequel section explores the suppressed history of Aunt Lydia, a teacher of female morality in Gilead, and how the seemingly impossible transformation to Gilead came about. Aunt Lydia reflects, “I’d believed in the ideals of life, liberty, democracy, and individual rights that I learned about in law school. I thought they were eternal truths, something we would always defend. I depended on them as if they were magic.”
The parts where Aunt Lydia describes her arrest, the end of her prestigious career, and her internment in a sports stadium resonate with the chilling indignity and intensity of French Jews awaiting deportation to Nazi death camps in the Vélodrome d’Hiver in Paris. It takes very little—filth, hunger, fear—to turn her into an unwilling servant of the regime.
The sequel sections of The Testaments are narrated by two teenage girls: Agnes, residing in Gilead, and Nicole, living in Canada. Initially, I believed I had figured out who these girls were, but now, after reading the coda that mimics the transcript from a future academic symposium on Gileadean Studies—as both The Handmaid’s Tale and The Testaments end with such a transcript—I find myself doubting my conclusions. Atwood challenges us to question what is fact, what is fiction, who manipulates evidence, and who survives to tell the story. As one character remarks, “Gilead news is saying it’s all fake.” It rings a familiar bell.
Both books feature Marthas always baking, and it seems as if Atwood is weaving her own narrative, leaving breadcrumbs for readers to follow: May Day, Moon June, Commander Judd, the Underground Female Road. These details are sure to ignite discussions among enthusiastic fans.
However, The Testaments falls short in two important aspects: voice and setting. The Handmaid’s Tale was singular, providing the perspective of one woman, Offred. We saw the world through her eyes, even staring at her bedroom ceiling. In contrast, The Testaments divides our attention and empathy between three intertwined stories: Nicole, Agnes, and Lydia. Yet, throughout it all, we remain Offred, unable to fully connect with the new characters. In terms of setting, The Handmaid’s Tale was primarily set within the confines of Offred’s small world in Gilead—a chamber piece. Offred’s Gilead consisted of her bedroom, her home, and her daily walks. She lacked a book, a job, even the knitting allowed to Serena Joy. It was the boredom, rather than the rapes, that weighed her down. She called it, “The long parentheses of nothing.”
The Testaments takes readers on a journey across various locations: buses, boats, vans, woods, rivers, seas, schools, dentists, diners, hotels, condos, charity shops, and refugee centers. As the story progresses, it transforms into a road-trip buddy film, with prayerful Agnes and fierce Nicole forming an unlikely duo. Some of Nicole’s scenes are clichéd and practically scream “film franchise moment,” reminiscent of The Hunger Games but with bonnets. There’s a montage where Nicole learns various fighting skills, a makeover scene complete with tattoos and green hair, and a chaste night shared by Nicole and the muscular yet sensitive Garth.
Agnes and Nicole, in their undeveloped and formulaic characters, pale in comparison to the complexity of Offred. One of the aspects that made The Handmaid’s Tale so captivating was Offred’s memories of a time when sex was not sinful and strictly controlled. She reminisces about the joy and seduction that came with physical intimacy. She longs to be touched and even risks her life for forbidden love. Agnes and Nicole, still innocent and untouched, do not carry the same tension surrounding sexuality.
The horrors and oppressive nature of Gilead that shocked us in The Handmaid’s Tale are revisited in The Testaments. Once you’ve encountered one horrifying birth scene or witnessed a man being torn apart by Handmaids, it becomes repetitive. Nevertheless, Atwood’s prose remains as powerful as ever, filled with tension and simplicity. She infuses certain phrases with ironic rage, highlighting terms like adulteress, precious flower, Certificate of Whiteness, fanatics, and defiled. Through clever wordplay, she forces readers to question the limitations of language and its capacity for deceit. The plot is gripping, and I finished reading the book in a mere six hours. However, if The Handmaid’s Tale was Atwood’s masterpiece, The Testaments feels like a misstep. The Handmaid’s Tale ended with uncertainty, leaving readers with the unanswerable query, “Are there any questions?” Perhaps it’s for the best that some of those questions were never addressed.