I’ve been a huge fan of The Handmaid’s Tale ever since I read the book as a teenager in the nineties, and I love the Hulu TV series. Therefore, I couldn’t wait to get my hands on this, and it didn’t disappoint. As a story and a sequel, I thoroughly enjoyed The Testaments. The writing is beautiful, accessible, and devastatingly astute. I loved the new cast of characters, the world of the Aunts, and seeing further into the lives of Agnes and Nicole.
‘Withereth, withereth. It was like lisping – as if God did not know how to speak clearly.’p. 73
As always, Margaret Atwood is an observational genius. I could read her prose just for the incredible playfulness of language, her exploration of the blurred lines between good and evil, and insightful commentary the contrariness of the human psyche.
‘You don’t believe the sky is falling until a chunk of it falls on you.’ p. 66
There were plenty of recognizable themes in the story – women’s rights, environmental degradation, and different countries turning inward to protect their own – although these weren’t always delivered with quite the force and focus I was anticipating. And when it comes to the plot and the continuation of the themes set up so magnificently in The Handmaid’s Tale, I was left with a few questions:
‘I wondered what the Aunts would look like if you made them wear pink.’ p. 156
One of the most moving parts of the book, for me, was the backstory of Lydia’s journey during the founding of Gilead. Her initial detention was so similar to Offred’s, and when she was offered the opportunity to escape that, her primal instinct was to survive. I was completely on board with the moral dilemmas embedded within the choices she made. However, I would have found it interesting to see more of the old Aunt Lydia reasserting herself in this story, but my suspicions of her divided, twisted psyche sometimes felt more like a hangover of the character I’d met in the previous book.
‘…there is a not insignificant chance that you may – I say may – be reunited with your mother.’ p. 355
My reading could be affected by the TV series here, because I’m so used to seeing June as such a strong, blazing heroine, but it felt strange to find her reduced to a side part – little more than a motherly motif, only appearing right at the end. We hear she has been in Canada for some time, so why had she not attempted to find Nicole before? She is all over this book as the mother of Agnes and Nicole, and because of her history with Aunt Lydia, but I longed to feel her as more of a fierce, omnipresent absence, rather than just an empty space.
‘I somehow agreed to go to Gilead without ever definitely agreeing.’ p. 199
I’m not sure why Nicole needed to be brought in to Gilead, in order for Aunt Lydia to smuggle crucial information out. Why could it ONLY be smuggled out via Nicole’s body when there’s been plenty of smuggling going on? (Or is Lydia still deciding which way to jump?) Symbolically, it resonates: the female body used to end the regime, but logically it requires a leap of faith. Why does Commander Judd not do more to control Nicole once he realizes she’s in Gilead? And does Nicole seem too compliant about going into Gilead, considering it is a place of horrors. As well as these questions about character motivation, I never felt too much tension about the sisters getting in and out of Gilead – no plan was ever thwarted. In fact, it seemed relatively easy for the girls to avoid marriage too – by announcing their ‘calling’. Therefore, the blunt, traumatic force of Gilead didn’t hit me as much as I thought it would this time around, but perhaps after the first book and three TV series I’ve grown more used to the horrors of the place (which is a frightening thought).
I also queried the absence of surveillance in some parts of the book. Would the Aunts really be allowed such a sanctum – and the freedom to read? Also, in terms of thwarting escapes, would there not be drones or more satellite surveillance deployed along the coast? Lydia plants her own cameras around the place, but is never spotted in a transgression. Technology often seemed to serve as a plot-device rather than a realistic, invasive, inconvenient presence.
THE TWELTH AND THIRTEENTH SYMPOSIUMS
‘We all congratulate you on you promotion, a thing that would never have happened in Gilead.’ p. 408
I didn’t fully engage with the 12thSymposium epilogue to the Handmaid’s Tale in my original reading of the book, and I felt the same about the 13thSymposium at the end of The Testaments. First of all, the years are 2195 and 2197, and yet the tone of speech and the conventions of the symposium read like they could be experienced in present day, which is akin to us imagining that little has changed in academic convention between the 1840s and now. Within the current acceleration of climate change this seems even less plausible. There’s also something inherently patriarchal about these parts to me – despite Professor Maryann Cresent Moon’s promotion! It feels like the restoration of old-fashioned, erudite order, and I wanted something more exciting or radical. I also love the characters’ narrative endings of both books: ‘or else the light’ and ‘the knock will come’ – and I think those would be enough to leave me in deep reflection on the nature of Gilead and the uncertain fate of the women. However, I can appreciate that the retrospective adds a different, omniscient context to the intimate portrayal of the Gilead regime: in particular that it’s as certain as the seasons that all such regimes will have their rise and their fall.
In summary, I thoroughly enjoyed the book. I’ll read it again and no doubt I’ll get even more out of it the second time. The Testaments offers some hope to the reader: that those responsible for despicable acts might repent, resist, and ultimately help to overthrow the governments they once aided. That individual acts make a difference. That unjust regimes can never last and are likely to be betrayed from within. The statue of Aunt Immortelle depicts the wider legacy of personal sacrifice. But some of this feels too comfortable for me in the current world climate, and so I’m also looking forward to the next season of the Hulu series, where I can watch June continue her fight.