Margaret Atwood's "The Testaments": a long-awaited Handmaid's Tale sequel fulfills its promise
When Margaret Atwood published "The Handmaid's Tale" back in 1985, it was at the dawn of the Reagan era, when the gains made by feminism and other liberation movements trembled before an all-out assault mounted by a bizarre coalition of the super-rich and the (historically apolitical) evangelical movement; 35 years later, even more ground has been lost and in many ways it's hard to imagine a more apt moment for Atwood to have published a sequel: The Testaments.
Still, you could be forgiven if you were a little nervous about the prospect of a sequel to such an old favorite. After all, the (excellent) Handmaid's Tale TV series has catapulted the novel out of the shallow waters of literary fame and into the deeps of blockbuster TV currency, to the extent that feminist protesters have started donning handmaids robes as a shorthand for their opposition to the authoritarian, misogynistic currents surging in contemporary politics.
But it's been 35 years: do we need another Handmaid's novel? Mightn't it be enough for the brilliant tributes like Alderman's The Power or Chelsea Cain and Kate Niemczyk's Man Eaters to carry on the work? A cynic might find the timing of The Testaments suspicious, smacking of cashing in.
That cynic would be wrong.
The Testaments is brilliant.
You may have figured that out already (after all, it shared this year's Booker Prize), but I have only just found time to read it (I listened to the outstanding, multi-voice audiobook which also features cameos by Atwood) and I wanted to say a few things about it.
Fundamentally, this is a book about how fragile our norms are, and the incredible resiliency of the people who are ground underfoot when those norms are jettisoned.
The Testaments provides not just a sequel to The Handmaid's Tale: it braids together the secret diaries and interviews of the survivors of Gilead, the fascist theocracy that seizes most of the USA in a coup.
By exploring the revolutionary birth and slow decline of Gilead, and by confining herself to first-person narratives by characters (some of whom predate the coup, some of whom are in the second or third generation of those living under Gilead's rule), Atwood is able to show how "good" people rationalize their complicity with atrocities and mass murder, and how quickly the children and grandchildren of those whom we'd recognize as "normal" take on the totalizing doctrine of authoritarian terror, emerging with values that would have been unrecognizable to their own parents just a few years before.
With a broader cast of characters, Atwood is able to flesh out much of the internal workings of Gilead -- something that she was able to handwave away in the first book thanks to her narrator's low status and narrow aperture on her world -- and, in so doing, demonstrate the corrosive rot that is the handmaiden (!) of authoritarianism, as whisper campaigns, denunciations, personal enrichment, corruption and blackmail cinch the lives of everyone in such a society in an ever-tightening, claustrophobic straightjacket of terror and hypocrisy.
And though Atwood's society's strictures are a blend of the toxic misogyny of Taliban and Saudi doctrine filtered through Dominionist Christian dogma, they are also recognizably derived from contemporary political struggles, from the leadership styles of far-right authoritarian ideologues in the USA and abroad, the heavily armed mystics who seize federal lands with the help of cultist conspiracists.
Atwood isn't shy about positioning her Gilead and its resistors in the current struggle between fascism and antifascists: her Texan antifa guerrilla fighters call themselves the Lincoln Brigade, while the "Aunts" -- vicious, violent, murderous gender-traitor collaborators -- live in a walled convent whose social hub is the Schlafly Cafeteria.
The Testaments covers fascism in the round: much of the action is set in Canada, living uneasily along its border with Gilead, fancying itself free from the moral rot of its larger neighbor, even as it is being coopted by that brutal, 800-lb gorilla to its south (this is also something Jo Walton dealt with brilliantly in her "small change" alternate histories, in which the Nazis win WWII and "neutral" Britain finds itself butted up against a fascist neighbor who relentlessly pushes it towards authoritarian collaboration).
More interesting still are the microcosmic stories of the "little people" who live under fascism: both the true believers who have no idea that their leaders are faithless cynics (and whose wrath those leaders secretly fear) and the most downtrodden women of Gilead, who nurse their human imperative to be free of oppression down through the generations.
All of this, and on top of it, The Testaments is -- like Handmaid's Tale -- a corker of a novel, fast paced, exciting, and beautifully plotted, with many twists and turns and suspense for days.
In her afterword, Atwood says that she had 35 years to think about what else might be going on in Gilead, off the stage of Handmaid's Tale -- its history, its geopolitics, its environmental crisis, its future. It shows: this is a superbly crafted novel, decades in the making, and Atwood clearly capitalized on ever minute of those intervening years.
The Testaments [Margaret Atwood/Nan A. Talese]
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