Socialist Worker

The Testaments—a rich and complex sequel to The Handmaid's Tale

The follow-up novel to The Handmaid’s Tale has been a long time coming. It’s grim, but also exciting and never straightforward, writes Sarah Bates

Issue No. 2672

The cover design for The Testaments - Margaret Atwoods sequel to The Handmaids Tale

The cover design for The Testaments - Margaret Atwood's sequel to The Handmaid's Tale

How did author Margaret Atwood cope with the 34-year wait for a sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale? If The Testaments is anything to go by, very well indeed.

Set some 15 years since the cliff-hanger finish of its predecessor, it tells the story of three characters in ultra-conservative society Gilead.

Three interlinking narratives—the testaments—detail efforts to bring the religiously repressive society to its knees.

The book treads familiar territory, as it examines the right wing coup by Christian fundamentalists that has taken over much of North America.

The takeover is driven by a crisis of low birth rates. Most babies die shortly after birth, and are known as “unbabies”.

“People became frightened. Then they became angry,” writes the formidable Aunt Lydia, a central character.

We see her somewhat improbable seamless transition from family judge to architect of the new regime.

The Handmaid’s Tale is a bleak but compelling story of women’s oppression
The Handmaid’s Tale is a bleak but compelling story of women’s oppression
  Read More

In Gilead some women are forced to become Handmaids—servants who are ceremoniously raped in the hope they will produce healthy babies.

Handmaids are considered merely vessels for childbirth—and the upper class wives of high ranking officials don’t fare much better.

Many women in Testaments come to a brutal end. There are plenty of hangings, beatings and even a poisoning.

But the book isn’t simply a list of bad things happening to women.

Some of the most exciting elements look at resistance group Mayday, and its Female Railroad network that helps women escape to Canada.

Elements of it are character-driven espionage, with peril at every corner, and all the better for it.

It appears as though Gilead is run entirely by men, but the Testaments blows that wide open.

After the transition of power, women—who later perform the role of Aunts—shaped the later society.

Aunts—similar to nuns—preside over the training of rich girls for marriage and Handmaids. Despite initial appearances, nothing and no one in Gilead is straightforward.

One of Atwood’s strongest abilities is creating complex characters.

The confessional diary-style tone of The Testaments allows the internal contradictions to play out at length.

For those waiting to find out what happened next, The Testaments is a fantastic conclusion to the story.

The Testaments by Margaret Atwood is published by Chatto & Windus, £20

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