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Book Review: The Testaments by Margaret Atwood

Writing sequels to the novels is not an uncommon thing at all. Actually, this phenomenon is more often then it could be. But usually the novels are baked one after the other to keep the readers involved and interested. Except for some authors who make a full stop after the first book as it has been meant to be a standalone. However, decades pass and one day you hear there’s going to be a sequel to the plot you’ve already forgotten or signed-off as a finite story. This is how Stephen King returned after 36 with Doctor Sleep, which carried on with a story of a grown-up Dan from The Shining (unfortunately not as genuine as the original one). This is how this year Margaret Atwood has returned with The Testaments after publishing The Handmaid’s Tale in 1985.

Only this time the demand for a sequel might point to an obvious catalyst – TV series based on her first novel, which have drawn a great number of audience still rising from one season to another. The writer herself has confessed that the sequel is based on the questions she received from the readers and “the world we’ve been living in.” However, the influence of The Handmaid’s Tale popularity on TV is as solid as ice.

Was it worth coming back after 34 years? The Testaments was awarded The Booker Prize 2019 (shared with Bernardine Evaristo’s Girl, Woman, Other) and this is more than a positive answer – it’s the highest recognition in the English speaking world (whereas The Handmaid’s Tale was only on the shortlist of Booker Prize 1986). But literary judges are the one thing, and an ordinary reader is another.

If you expect the sequel to pick up at the moment the story ended in The Handmaid’s Tale, you’ll be disappointed. Sorry to spoil the pleasure, but June (aka Offred) is practically exempt from the plot. She is just an idea lingering behind the actual story only to step forward in the final lines. Moreover, it all happens fifteen years after the final events of the first novel. So, if you watched it all on TV, that’s not what’s happening in The Testaments.

Perhaps the main difference is in the object targeted in the plot. While The Handmaid’s Tale focuses on Handmaids, their inhuman purpose in Gilead and their tragedies and sufferings told via a voice of one of them, The Testaments circles around the conception of Aunts, the maleficent protagonists of the initial story. The very title of the novel hints at the structure of the book: it is also assembled of historical testimonials: transcripts of witness testimonies and the Ardua Hall holograph. But this time these are the Aunts who are recounting the events but only one of them is a character well-remembered from the first novel. It’s Aunt Lydia.

There was that shilly shally feeling about Aunt Lydia in The Handmaid’s Tale. Ruthless, inexorable person well-serving the ideals of Gilead, however, protective and sympathetic during certain moments. The intuition was prompting that there’s something about Aunt Lydia that is not yet revealed. The sequel tells the whole story from how she found herself in this powerful position till what a role she had played in destroying Gilead. Through Aunt Lydia’s story the writer shows how we all are apt to sacrifice our beliefs in order to survive, and though you might try to convince yourselves that you’d have never agreed to what Aunt Lydia had committed herself, it just means that you have never really found yourselves in such a desperate situation.

The other two witness testimonies belong to young girls, one of them being Agnes who escapes her marriage at fourteen by turning into the Aunt, meanwhile the other is a teenager called Daisy who lives in Canada and knows about Gilead only from her history classes. However, if you’re smart enough, soon you’ll add two and two and realize who these girls are before the story unfolds it itself.

If the first novel introduced us to the nightmarish life of Handmaids raped every month to get pregnant and deliver a baby to the Commander family, The Testaments elaborates on the horror. But this time it’s the female babies who are in danger. Not at their birth but when they grow up to be fourteen-year-olds. Because under Gilead laws this is the age when they are ready for the marriage. This legalization of sexual child abuse and pedophiles was not mentioned in the initial story but The Testaments makes it clear that evolving Gilead is a total humiliation and a mortal danger to all women, not only Handmaids.

The dystopia presented in Atwood’s novels might have sounded unlikely to happen in the 20th century, when women were gaining more and more rights in the whole world. Unfortunately, with the rapid progress of the 21st, the paradox emerges: by spreading worldwide ideas of women rights limitation, especially in the area of the right to abortion, the concepts of Gilead become plausible enough.

Though The Testaments explain many things about how Gilead was created and the novel is a real page-turner, the feeling is not of “wow” but rather of “OK”. The climax is not over the rainbow and the ending is too easy and simple for a spoiled book rat. It even leaves the reader wondering why Aunt Lydia had to wait for fifteen years to accomplish her plan, if the whole system was in place and under control for years.

Despite this minor grumbling, I was still getting the urge to continue reading the story even after I finished it two days ago. It was really hard not to react. Though, thanks Aunt Lydia, I’ve learned: “It’s a skill, not reacting.”

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