The Testaments is the sequel to Atwood’s outstanding novel. The Handmaid’s Tale, and takes us further into Gilead, allowing us to see more of the messed up, dystopian world ruled by the Sons of Jacob.
While The Handmaid’s Tale was told through one POV (Offred), The Testaments is told through three – Aunt Lydia, who expands on the treatment of women in the early days of the regime, Agnes Jemima, a young girl growing up in Gilead, and Daisy, a teenager in Canada.
Aunt Lydia’s sections read most like The Handmaid’s Tale, as she records her diary and hides it from prying eyes, giving the reader an insight into the function of the Aunts, and how they came to be in their position.
In contrast, Agnes’ and Daisy’s chapters read much more like a YA novel, presented as ‘witness statements’ as the girls reveal how they came to be in their current situations. The chapters switch back and forth, painting deeper pictures of what growing up in Gilead is like, and how the rest of the world views the situation.
One thing that struck me when I read The Handmaid’s Tale last year was how, after all this time, it’s still so scaringly relevant. With The Testaments, Atwood doesn’t shy away from current issues. Countries are too scared to step in and deal with Gilead, preferring to watch from afar as Gilead puts out its own propaganda, meant, at times, to make places like Canada feel better about doing nothing. Fleeing refugees are dealt with poorly, with some people resenting their presence. And children protest against Gilead, while others raised there see no wrong in the way they are brought up.
The contrast between the two girls works really well, especially when we get glimpses of Agnes’ school life, and her best friends. Gilead is very much a patriarchal (in the strongest sense) and classist society, Agnes’ classmates treatment of her affected by how many Marthas she has, by the fact her father gets a handmaid, and so on. Although things do not sit quite right with her, she accepts them, only acting to change things once she receives permission.
In contrast, Daisy is strong-willed and stubborn, keen to make her voice heard, though at most times she comes across as apathetic, almost like a mask to conceal what she actually feels.
The characters in The Testaments feel as real and vivid as Offred, from Aunt Lydia’s recollections of how Gilead started, to the words of the two girls who have never known a world without Gilead. Despite her sheltered upbringing, Agnes does have empathy for people around her. Lydia quietly works to maintain her place, and Daisy searches for answers once it becomes clear her parents haven’t always told her the truth.
At times, it becomes easy to dislike some of the characters, but questions are raised regarding whether you would take the same course of action, or do something differently. Whether it is worth risking your life for the innocents around you, or risk the life of people you love for the greater good.
The Testaments isn’t as good as The Handmaid’s Tale, and it is, in many ways, an easier read, feeling a little bit more removed, more with a dystopian YA feel than The Handmaid’s Tale, but it is still powerful in its own way, and still carries the threat of Gilead, showing how easy it would be for a regime such as that to take over, and for many to ignore the suffering happening right before their eyes.