Arts Books Muse

Book Review: The Testaments

Alice Manning on the importance of perspective in Atwood’s novel.

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Image Credit: Chatto & Windus, 2019

The Testaments, 2019’s long-awaited sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale, begins with one of its narrators, the quintessential Gileadean battle-axe Aunt Lydia, noting her ongoing fictionalisation as a cult figure:

“Only dead people are allowed to have statues, but I have been given one while still alive. Already I am petrified.”

In an eerily similar way, Margaret Atwood’s fictional world has achieved the same liminality. The phenomenon began in 1984’s The Handmaid’s Tale and the world it depicts has transcended the boundaries of its format as a novel . Its cultural impact is so great that the world of Gilead is one that blends fiction into reality, continuing to engross readers old and new – not to mention watchers of the recent TV series.

Young people around the world now study Atwood’s text as a key work in literature classes. We hardly need to be reminded of its ongoing relevance when women’s rights protesters around the world frequently don Handmaid garments for demonstrations. Inevitably, any expansion upon the original story has a lot to live up to, even when it comes from the very source of Gilead herself.

However, in The Testaments Atwood amply demonstrates the benefit of continuing her story, proving that Gilead as a concept, and her message about female subjugation are still living, breathing ideas. Much as in the way Aunt Lydia continues to write – to write herself into being, even though her "supporters" already memorialise her in the form of a statue – The Testaments reworks themes from its predecessor to continue the world-building process and demonstrate the timelessness of its themes.

Just as The Handmaid’s Tale relies upon the resourcefulness of the oppressed (otherwise, how would Offred record her story?), its sequel diverges the plot through the secretive writings and oral testimonies of three women affiliated with Gilead. The identity of the first, the inimitable Aunt Lydia , is clear from the onset.  Atwood chooses to gradually unravel the histories of Witness 369A and Witness 369B as the plot progresses, albeit a little too obviously. The focus on oral and ‘hidden’ histories, a historiographical category often frequented by women, makes for one of the most enjoyable aspects of the novel. We are reminded of the power of stories – and the power of those who take those stories away from us.

One Gilead grouping that remained static in the original story is that of the Aunts. Brought to life through Aunt Lydia’s writing, and rather unexpectedly for Gilead, we see the breakdown of gender norms in these women, for whom ‘pen is envy’ is an in-joke to be bandied around. This both affirms and subverts the patriarchy of Gilead, as it references Freud’s infamous theory of female deficiency whilst acknowledging that the Aunts alone are the only women to have access to written knowledge in Gilead. Furthermore, their biological status as female combined with their special privileges of their social category prompts one Gileadean to remark ‘did they have special brains, neither female nor male?’, in a passage that aptly demonstrates the fallacies of believing in strict gender roles.

Indeed, The Testaments is an expansive novel that seeks to challenge any two-dimensional construction of Gilead. Daisy, or Witness 369B, is revealed to have a narrow understanding of the many people who make up the polity. She views it in a two-dimensional manner  tarring everyone involved with the same brush. Her perception is textbook; literally, as it is based on schoolwork and theory.

Atwood in this sequel gives us a chance to make what we will of Gilead through three very different perspectives on the regime, with the framing device of the academic conference harnessed to give the content a 'found evidence' feel, much as with The Handmaid’s Tale.

The theme of othering extends to those on the “right” side of history, as well as the perpetrators of atrocities. Through the two young women that narrate the novel, we see the internalisation and the externalisation of Gilead. Agnes/Witness 369A is Daisy’s inverse; she holds Gilead’s ideology within her, whilst acknowledging her indoctrination. Yet, the outspoken Daisy believes that Gilead is something totally alien to her. Something solid and unbreachable.

Through the use of multiple narrators, The Testaments highlights that there is not one way to process Gilead; one lens with which to view it. Ultimately, it offers the reader the chance to spectate the events of the book from multiple angles – something that would not happen in real life. For instance, as readers we alone bear witness to how Agnes defies Aunt Lydia, and prays to her as the lone source of feminine power that she can access in her life.

Being able to read chapters from the perspective of this mythological figure, we witness the cult as it manifests in the human it celebrates. “Witness 369C”, then, is surely the reader. Atwood is encouraging us all to gain greater perspective on the people, places and events that shape our lives in order to truly understand them for what they are, and to acknowledge that any event, person or place can be legitimately viewed from a variety of perspectives.

Reading The Testaments during lockdown made for more relatable reading than I could have imagined. At one point in the novel, Lydia describes how the mind can go ‘soft’ without human interaction: ‘one person alone is not a full person’. She proceeds to ‘berate’ herself for not foreseeing the reality that was thrust upon her. In that sense, it was a good lockdown read for its grasp of things that are lost; the freedoms of our old normal appear more attractive when the possibility of returning to them is remote.

My final conclusion from reading The Testaments is, inevitably, that its story necessitates a reread of The Handmaid’s Tale at some point. Atwood’s sequel shines with all the acuity and brilliance of the original, whilst continuing the story with flair and modern insight.

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