Margaret Atwood’s name already had become synonymous with Canadian Literature when, in 1985, she took an unexpected turn and wrote a dystopian satire. It proved an international sensation, encouraged her to write other works that would be considered SF, and birthed a bad movie, a graphic novel, and an initially excellent prestige series.
In 2019, a sequel appeared.
Title: The Testaments
Author: Margaret Atwood
First published in September 2019.
The notorious and enigmatic Aunt Lydia bears witness to the impending demise of the Republic of Gilead1. Meanwhile, a pair of teenage girls become involved in the resistance.
The novel gives us an interesting take on Aunt Lydia, the source of much speculation in the original novel.
Atwood follows her original self-appointed guidelines: nothing can happen in her novel that hasn’t happened, somewhere in the world, at some point in history. She draws and transforms everything from the rise of Nazism and Stalinism, the rise and workings of the Middle Eastern theocracies and monarchies to internment camps on the Mexican-American border and scandals at private Christian schools and elsewhere, the American experience of slavery and censorship and media shenanigans from a range of political viewpoints. Gilead may be satire, but it’s disturbingly credible satire.
The Handmaid’s Tale put Atwood in a dystopian league with Orwell and Huxley. The Testaments places her among the hundreds of writers who, since the success of The Hunger Games, have written mediocre YA dystopian adventures for fun and profit.
Originality: 2/6 The novel begins with promise and quickly descends into predictability and tropes.
Imagery: 5/6 Atwood has written much better, but she retains her poet’s eye for powerful imagery.
Characterization: 5/6 As in the TV series, Aunt Lydia has gone from an important but enigmatic supporting character to the lynchpin.
The TV series gives us a true believer who starts to realize the regime has gone in directions she can no longer approve—directions she should have anticipated, but did not. This novel makes her a morally-challenged collaborator who, after torture and threats, chose to work with a regime that needs women like her in select positions. She throws herself into the enterprise with apparent relish—but she harbors significant resentment that only grows as Gilead becomes more corrupt and oppressive, and she’s very much a long-term planner. Totalitarian governments have purges for a reason; their very nature makes it impossible for anyone to trust anyone else. They breed Aunt Lydias. She has been credibly crafted, and provides the novel with some sinister chuckles.
The remaining characters, for the most part, are plausible stereotypes and YA tropes.
Emotional Response: 4/6
Editing: 5/6 The simplified style, in part, reflects the age of the two younger narrators, but the YA influence extends to plot contrivances, tropes, and overall predictability.
Overall: 3/6 We have a page-turning novel, I grant, but one lacking in the wit, depth of characterization, satiric excellence, and wordplay that made the original so impressive. It’s difficult to believe the often-brilliant Margaret Atwood produced this pedestrian effort.
And yet, after all she has written, this mediocre sequel wins the much-lauded author her second Booker Prize.
In total, The Testaments receives 29/42
Notes: The Geography of Gilead
1. That Gilead will fall does not constitute a spoiler. The first novel features an epilogue set more than a century later, in which an academic conference discusses the events of the novel, supposedly a recording made by a Handmaid. The sequel brings us to a subsequent conference. By then, Gilead has long been a memory.
But what was Gilead?
The original novel benefited from Offred’s limited understanding of the larger world. We know her experience, but we don’t know how large Gilead is, how powerful it might be, or exactly how much of the world has been affected by the various events that have occurred between then and now.
We know that the world has been depopulated. The timeline of the first novel suggests the “Plague of Infertility” started by the 1990s. Offred’s descriptions, meanwhile, clearly place her community in what was once Cambridge, Massachusetts.
The Testaments features three narrators, one of them very much aware of the larger world and one living in Canada. Atwood necessarily has to flesh out the world a little, and that is always a difficult exercise. We know that Gilead, despite having a powerful army, is very much a remnant of the US. We do not know how much land it covers. We also learn that significant areas have been laid waste. We know from The Testaments that the west coast remains independent as does Texas (a fact suggested in the original novel).
The Handmaid’s Tale refers to rebels who belong to Christian sects that could not come to an accommodation with Gilead. The sequel gives us a few of these along with secular rebels, and references to “heretical” and somewhat free people living on the edges of Gilead, in Vermont. We also learn that, while Michigan and Illinois may be under Gilead’s control (at least partially), the areas around Chicago and Detroit are either independent or in open states of rebellion. The borders may stretch to Utah, but Utah is clearly not getting on well with Gilead (Mormons are considered heretics).
We know from the epilogues of both novels that, in Atwood’s future, the Republic of Texas remains an independent state long after Gilead has fallen, as does Alaska. The series takes its cue from the novels, but it diverges from them in a number of ways.
The third season of the TV series shows us a map of uncertain veracity. Gilead consist largely of the east coast. Its northern boundaries stretch to the Dakotas, though we have indications that their hold on the edges of Gilead is less than secure. We see the waste lands clearly marked, with epicenters of destruction in southern California (one actually identified in the novel), Arizona, and a massive region that encompasses parts of Missouri, Kansas, Arkansas, and Oklahoma. This largest area may be the dangerous “colonies” that Gilead is trying to reclaim. The Republic of Texas, meanwhile, has spread across the coastal regions of Louisiana and Alabama. Florida, too, appears to be an independent entity. Online banter suggests Disney may be in charge–“Under his ears.”