Margaret Atwood’s THE TESTAMENTS
“History does not repeat itself, but it rhymes.”
I am a latecomer to the works of Margaret Atwood. Before the first season of The Handmaid’s Tale screened on television, I read The Handmaid’s Tale and was blown away. It is one of those moments you have as a reader where you think “what I have been doing all my reading life not reading this author?”. I promptly binged the rest of her novels, loving all of them. I also binged the first season of The Handmaid’s Tale and was amazed by how great a job they did adapting the book for the screen. However, I did not like the second season and stopped watching after two or three episodes. Like many adaptions before it once the television writers went off the source material I felt the show lost its spark and lost its way. The same thing happened with Game of Thrones and there are countless other examples. The main reason this happens is of course the world the book inhabits is invented by the author and a different writer (or writers as the case maybe) isn’t going to have the depth of knowledge and subconscious understanding the original author has about the world they have created. The other factor is that the storytelling changed from sociological to psychological. This article highlights how these changes occurred in Game of Thrones and I think the same can be said for The Handmaid’s Tale.
When news broke last year that Margaret Atwood was writing a sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale I was fascinated to see what she would do. I thought the way The Handmaid’s Tale ended was brilliant. It was one of those fantastic open endings that allowed you as a reader to consider multiple different outcomes for Offred and the rest of the Gilead universe; good, bad and everything in between. A sequel though, written 34 years later, now risked ruining this brilliant ending. But we are talking about Margaret Atwood here, so we were always going to be in safe hands.
The Testaments is not a direct sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale. In fact, you could almost read it without having read the first book. What I really enjoyed most about the new book is the different perspectives Margaret Atwood brings to Gilead. The only recurring character is Aunt Lydia, whose character was much more prominent in the television series than the original novel. In The Testaments Margaret Atwood gives us Aunt Lydia’s backstory. Who she was before Gilead and how she became complicit in Gilead’s construction and why she has cooperated and collaborated in maintaining its structures of power and dominance. Mixed in with Aunt Lydia’s story is that of two young women. One is the daughter of a Commander who is slowly discovering her place in Gilead and the role she is expected to fill. The other is living in Canada, across the border from Gilead, who is also learning about her place and role in the world. Through these three characters Margaret Atwood gives us a bigger picture of Gilead and the rest of the world. Gilead is just as unimaginably horrendous yet believably possible as it was 34 years ago. While it doesn’t have the claustrophobic intensity of Offred’s story it is still just as powerful. Maybe even more so given the current state of affairs we are currently living in. The perspective of outside Gilead is also interesting and adds yet another layer that is all too realistic. The inaction of others to what is happening and the underground movement that is trying to help bring change.
I was totally gripped by The Testaments. It does what any sequel should do, it adds to the story and universe previously created without diminishing the original material. There have been countless sequels that I wish had never been conceived of, let alone written and published. This is not one of them. The Handmaid’s Tale was visionary in its imagined horror of a world not that far removed from our own. A vison that has sadly become closer to reality than further from it in the 34 years since it was written. The Testaments is another warning. A warning about what is possible and an admonishment to continue to fight against those who crave power and tyranny. The fight is never over, even when it is won and especially when it is lost.
Title: The Testaments
Author: Margaret Atwood
Publisher: Random House UK
Series: The Handmaid's Tale
Publication Date: 10/09/2019