It’s one thing to follow up a beloved book 34 years after it was published, but it’s quite another challenge altogether when the original book has spawned a hit TV show and become a political symbol of resistance. But Margaret Atwood isn’t going to let a little thing like that put her off.
The Testaments takes place around 16 years after The Handmaid’s Tale ended, with a pregnant Offred stepping into a van that would lead to either her freedom or her doom. But Offred is not the centre of this story – instead, we have three women sharing narrator duty: a Canadian teenager viewing Gilead from the outside, a young girl raised in a wealthy household in Gilead with no memory of what came before, and, most tantalising at all, the formerly unknowable Aunt Lydia.
Where The Handmaid’s Tale was limited strictly to Offred’s viewpoint, creating the book’s confused and claustrophobic tone, The Testaments keeps few secrets, and instead is a surprisingly rollicking tale with the flavour of a YA thriller in places. Those elements, unfortunately, don’t sit very comfortably within the fearful and suffocatingly silent world of Gilead. The Canadian narrator is the book’s weakest strand, filled with inauthentic dialogue and led by a shallow protagonist.
The Gilead sections of the novel, however, are brilliant, and Atwood brings to life a terrifyingly real vision of life under a totalitarian regime. Her Gilead Daughter narrator grapples with the limitations of her life without ever questioning, or even realising, the cruelty of them. Best of all, though, are Aunt Lydia’s chapters, revealing a slippery, deceptive Lydia previously unguessed-at, and a thrilling insight into how Gilead actually operates.
The book is far more fun and optimistic than The Handmaid’s Tale, and the ending is perhaps a little too schmaltzy for a story about a genocidal regime that has killed millions. Perhaps Atwood would have done well to abandon two of the narrators, and simply present us with The Aunt’s Tale. The Testaments cements Aunt Lydia as one of the most fascinatingly monstrous anti-heroes in fiction.