Sunday, September 22, 2019

The Testaments

The Testaments by Margaret Atwood (2019)

Margaret Atwood's long-awaited sequel to The Handmaid's Tale is narrated by three women: Aunt Lydia, the daughter of a Commander, and a young woman in Canada. The events take place fifteen years after the first book and give us much more insight into parts of Gilead we didn't see before. We've gotten some of it from the show, but there is still more to discover here.

Aunt Lydia's chapters are written in secret and hidden in a book to be discovered at some later time. She speculates about whether she'll be dead then, or if their discovery will lead to her death or downfall because of her explosive secrets. Agnes Jemima is the Commander's daughter and if you watch the show you will recognize her as Offred/June's daughter, originally called Hannah. Her chapters are labeled Transcript of Witness Testimony 369A. Our third character's story is told through Transcript of Witness Testimony 369B, and she is a sixteen-year-old named Daisy, living in Canada with her parents Neil and Melanie, and in her opening story she is just learning, through a tragic event, that much of what she knew about herself is a lie. The stories of all three of these characters come to intersect in important ways that may change Gilead forever.

Even though I've been watching the show, there is a lot to learn here about Gilead. A Commander's daughter provides an enlightening perspective on how the privileged live and view their world. Although the show does follow some characters who have escaped to Canada, that's different than this viewpoint of a teenager for whom Gilead has been a neighbor her whole life, and has grown up hearing about Baby Nicole, baby of legend, stolen from Gilead and hidden in Canada. And of course Aunt Lydia's writings reveal a great deal about the inner workings of those who set up this society and keep it running, plus the details of how her life changed when the American government fell and how she became an Aunt.

Especially interesting to me is how the characters view the handmaids. In The Handmaid's Tale we have only 's Offred's perspective, and therefore believe that the handmaids are revered because they produce babies, the society's most precious commodity. Imagine my surprise when I began reading and heard the way people talked about the handmaids as sluts who are good for nothing else. Well! That was something I didn't expect from such a pious, baby-centric society. This novel was pretty eye-opening, to say the least.

I don't want to say too much about the plot, of course, so I'll just summarize my experience by saying that it was very satisfying. Throughout the show I have been dying to know just how evil Aunt Lydia is - there have been times that I could swear I see glimmers of a good person hidden in there, especially when she protects the handmaids or forces them to behave in ways that will be safer for them in the long run. But then she would do something awful and I would think that no, in fact, she is all for Gilead's way of life, a true believer. This book finally gives me the answers I have sought about her character. A fun discovery was that part of the book takes place on Campobello Island, which is a tiny Canadian island connected by a bridge to my hometown and where I spent a great deal of time when I was growing up.

Of course I can't help but think about the present atmosphere in the United States, with an authoritarian president, an election system that's not currently as free and fair as it should be, and the distinct possibility of political instability. Atwood has been very open about how everything in Gilead has existed somewhere at some time in the real world. As she says late in this novel "History does not repeat itself, but it rhymes." It left me with a lot to think about.

I had only read one review of this book before reading it because I knew I would read it no matter what - that review was from Kirkus and was predictably Kirkus-like (it said something to the effect that the book was good but unnecessary, whatever the heck that means.) Of course I thought it was great, and I am trying to figure out the trajectory of the show given that this takes place several years later and I don't know how many seasons they have planned. But no matter: I'm happy to have this story now!

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