Book Review: ‘The Testaments’ — Thirty Years Later, Atwood Returns to Gilead

The last narrator, surprisingly enough, is Handmaid‘s arch villain herself, Aunt Lydia. Through her narrative, we learn more about how Gilead came to be, and — most chillingly — how its founders, “the Sons of Jacob,” were able to convince so many to comply with the brutality of the new regime. Lydia, through her own words, becomes much more interesting. Once a “lady judge,” she is both brilliant and manipulative, doing what she has to do (a statue in her honor holds a Taser), but collecting damning evidence against those in power for revenge and for her own protection.

Aunts, in general, play a much larger role than they did in Atwood’s earlier novel. In Gilead society, they are positioned as a cross between Catholic nuns, matchmakers, and private school headmistresses. They are responsible for the education of the society’s girls, ensuring that each grown woman fulfills her rigidly prescribed role. They are, in essence, the only women in Gilead with any power or agency. Thanks to the Aunts, the Commanders don’t have to bother with the so-called weaker sex (made much weaker by Gilead’s misogynist laws). In return, they’re accorded more freedom than other women.

As children, Gilead’s girls are taught to fear their innate ability to turn men into sex-crazed animals. They cover their bodies; cast their eyes down; keep their opinions to themselves. Upon menses, they are married off — generally to a much older man — according to their status. It’s little wonder that becoming an Aunt seems preferable. Throughout the new novel, the fate of child brides makes Atwood’s feelings about that tradition, still practiced in many countries, abundantly clear.

Atwood, an outspoken critic of the Trump administration, also can’t resist injecting a bit of current American rhetoric into her novel. When the foundation of Gilead is irreparably damaged (thanks to the combined efforts of the three narrators, who become unlikely but effective allies), the government insists that it’s “fake news.”

The Testaments is exceptionally well written, and proves itself a compelling page-turner. At over 400 pages, it’s a remarkably fast read. There’s more background exposition (thank you, Aunt Lydia) and far more action than in the original Handmaid’s Tale. But the most memorable Gilead roles, laws, and ceremonies are still there, and in many cases as horrific as ever. 

Although with The Testaments Atwood delivers a more optimistic — and much welcomed — ending to Gilead, she still takes the warnings inherent in its story seriously. In an essay for The New York Times, she wrote, “Having been born in 1939 and come to consciousness during World War II, I knew that established orders could vanish overnight. Change could also be as fast as lightning. ‘It can’t happen here’ could not be depended on: Anything could happen anywhere, given the circumstances.”

She makes an argument not only for resisting (as The Testaments three heroines do), but also for chronicling (as they also do). “It is a certainty that someone, somewhere — many, I would guess — are writing down what is happening as they themselves are experiencing it,” she wrote. “Or they will remember, and record later, if they can. Will their messages be suppressed and hidden? Will they be found, centuries later, in an old house, behind a wall? Let us hope it doesn’t come to that. I trust it will not.”


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