Book cover The Testaments

A return to Gilead

Book review: The Testaments by Margaret Atwood

In a dark and often frighteningly real story, Margaret Atwood offers the possibility of hope and a reminder of human complexity with her long awaited sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale, The Testaments. Where the previous book primarily looked at Offred’s perspective, the sequel offers a broader world 15 years later – Offred’s two daughters and Aunt Lydia – and their involvement in the failure of Gilead.

Reflections on society

It is disturbing that more than three decades after its fictional introduction, Gilead remains highly relevant to society, even though progress has been made. We are increasingly seeing fundamentalist and extreme right-wing philosophies gain a voice in politics. Australians like to view themselves as being both physically and spiritually removed from international activity – Trump’s wars against anyone who disagrees with him, the protests in Hong Kong, rising nationalism. We share the same problems here too.

There is also an edge to how women are viewed and treated globally. For every #metoo win, there’s a member of the incel movement with a gun. There’s debates re-criminalising abortion. Restricted freedoms to varying degrees. Violent gender-based attacks. The gender pay gap and higher prospect of female poverty in retirement seems like a frivolity compared to the rest. Yet, we too have the same problems.

For another book exploring violence and women, see Spinning Silver.

A warning for Australia

Violence against women remains disturbingly high in Australia, with an average of 1 woman per week in Australia murdered at the hands of a former or current partner1 . Only a week after The Testaments was released and two events occurred directly relating to the lives of women in Australia. The NSW Premier barely survived a leadership spill over efforts to change abortion in NSW. Senator Pauline Hanson announces, despite evidence to the contrary, that it is common for women to make false domestic violence claims in family courts and is then appointed as co-lead to an enquiry into family law. It’s a side note that radio shock jock Alan Jones once again manages to avoid any real consequences to his frequent abusive and inappropriate comments about women, particularly those in power.

Gilead is what happens when all of this takes over. When everyday people choose to ignore the warnings and don’t take a stand until it’s too late.

When good people don’t speak out

The Testaments explores this in detail. Aunt Lydia, the villain of The Handmaid’s Tale, is not who we thought. Or rather she both is and isn’t a villain. We discover her through the extracts of the Ardua Hall Holograph.

Atwood quotes at the start of the novel:

“Every woman is supposed to have the same set of motives, or else to be a monster.”

George Eliot

Lydia’s motives are very human. She’s not about the values women are supposed to be valued for – self-sacrifice, humility, blah blah blah. She’s human, she’s intelligent and she’s taking opportunities. She’s responsible for much of the restrictions on women in Gilead, yet she also holds a conscience. She’s contradictory. She does acts of kindness for underlings. Ruthlessly destroys her competition. She is complex in a way that we didn’t know or see before. It’s too simplistic to view her as a villain, but she’s far from a hero either.

The question becomes to the reader, would you really act differently in her place? Would you make the same choices?

One result, different goals

Offred’s two daughters – presented as witness accounts – are presented more as protagonists but even here, there are nuances. Are they actively seeking an end to Gilead or inadvertently contributing to the greater good? A bit of both.

Witness 369A – Agnes Jemima, Offred’s older daughter, reminds us that even the best of us can be complicit to horrors. Her adoptive mother is loving and affectionate but as a founding family, guilty to allowing Gilead to occur and guilty of stealing a loved child from its mother. On the other hand, her adoptive father and stepmother are using Gilead to further their own power and desires, with those who stand in their way swiftly “removed”. Agnes is clearly conflicted over her Gilead experiences and we see her innocence removed piece by piece as her account continues. She becomes a greater player but it’s hard to say if it’s really her choice. Not knowing anything else, she wants Gilead to be better as well as protect her younger sister and Aunt Lydia uses this to get her to agree to actions that are more likely to topple it. Doing the right thing for the wrong reasons? Or the right thing for the right reasons?

Her younger sister – Witness 369B – Nicole, is less naïve despite being much younger, only a teenager as key events play out. Her youth positions her as a pawn, to an extent, between Gilead and the Mayday operatives. For the greater good, Mayday are happy to sacrifice her – after protecting and hiding her for years – when she is too young to technically have consented to doing so. Gilead equally want her as a symbol and it is clear, they would also sacrifice her once her value is through. Her account suggests she is somewhat ambivalent about her role but does her best to follow through on the commitments made on her behalf. She shows courage on one hand or naivety on the other given she truly doesn’t understand at the start what she is doing, and is forced into the decision after a traumatic event.

The future is human, for better or worse

The Testaments is an insight into the complexity of human nature. It is both terrifying and optimistic. These are insights we can take back into the real world. The challenge lies in how we respond to the life events in front of us. By having both The Handmaid’s Tale and The Testaments be recounted by a professor in much distant future from witness and archive accounts, Atwood suggests that, in the end, the best of human nature will overcome.

But in the meantime, life is not black and white. We will all be called to account for how we have let the world become what it is (or will be), through active protest or desire, through passively ignoring the situation and hoping for better or crossing between as we go about our days. How we should we judge ourselves? Human. Complex. Frail.

The Testaments is a weighty story in some ways but it is easy to read. Deceptively gripping and you are finished before you know it. You’ll wonder what’s just hit you, and I can only assume that’s what Atwood intended.

The Testaments by Margaret Atwood is published by Penguin Australia