THE TESTAMENTS by Margaret Atwood (Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, 419 pp., $28.95).
Margaret Atwood, you canny lady! With her 1985 feminist classic “The Handmaid’s Tale” having an amazing second life as a cultural mega-icon thanks to the Hulu series with Elisabeth Moss, the author has picked the perfect moment to publish a sequel. Set 17 years after the handmaid Offred climbed into the back of a van, possibly pregnant, unsure whether she was heading into captivity or freedom, “The Testaments” tells us what happened after that, deftly incorporating elements added in the TV series, unfolding both within and outside the fictional dystopia of Gilead.
I wondered whether I should reread “The Handmaid’s Tale” before starting it. Then I recalled that, while I loved the TV show, I was not a fan of the novel. A grim, oppressive, even boring story, I felt its feminist message was delivered with a heavy hand. While some of these are the qualities that won the book so much respect as an unsparing portrait of totalitarianism, I nonetheless decided to go with the Wikipedia plot summary. Just a few pages into “The Testaments,” I saw that Atwood has changed her approach. This is a thrilling page-turner, filled with clever world-building and razor wit.
The novel has three heroines, each presented through first-person testimony. “The Ardua Hall Holograph” is the memoir of Aunt Lydia, the terrible enforcer who broke Offred’s will in the first book. Her account includes her pre-Gilead life as a family court judge, her experiences during the coup, her role in setting up the draconian system — and her current scheme to bring it down. She is still ruthless, but now we understand that she is also brilliant and self-aware. Her voice is poetic and ironic by turns: “The crocuses have melted, the daffodils have shriveled to paper, the tulips have performed their enticing dance, flipping their petal skirts before dropping them completely. The herbs nurtured by Aunt Clover and her posse of semi-vegetarian trowel wielders are in their prime.” She hides the memoir inside a 19th century edition of Cardinal Newman’s Apologia Pro Vita Sua, hoping her own “apology for her life” will survive to be read by future generations.
The other two protagonists tell their stories in Transcripts of Witness Testimony 369A and 369B. The first is a girl named Agnes Jemima who has grown up in Gilead under unhappy conditions. The woman she believed to be her mother dies and is replaced by a wicked stepmother. Her experiences at school recall Atwood’s pioneering mean-girls novel “Cat’s Eye.” The Handmaid in her house is murdered during childbirth, and at 13, she is told she will soon be getting married. Her only experience with the opposite sex to date consists of being molested by her dentist, and she has a clear understanding of the realities of Wifehood. Fortunately, a visit from Aunt Lydia suggests that there is perhaps a way out.
The other “witness” is a Canadian girl, Daisy, whose parents Neil and Melanie run a used-clothing shop. A week after she goes to an anti-Gilead demonstration — on her 16th birthday, in fact — Neil and Melanie are murdered and she finds out everything she knows about herself is wrong, including her name and her birthday. Luckily, she’s no powder puff.
Throughout, details about the history of Gilead and of the resistance are filled in. Arrests are made on an escape route that runs through Upstate New York — “a mixed haul of seven Quakers, four back-to-the-landers, two Canadian moose-hunting guides and a lemon smuggler, each of whom was a suspected link in the Underground Femaleroad chain.” We meet a character from The Republic of Texas; his two older brothers died in the war which gave the state its independence from Gilead.
Like “The Handmaid’s Tale,” this novel ends with the proceedings of a Symposium on Gileadan Studies, again featuring Professors Crescent Moon and Peixoto. The authenticity of the testimonies is discussed, and it turns out there has been one more discovery, one which ties our remaining questions into a lovely bow.
Wait, what about Offred? She is offstage, her fate a mystery at first, but her place in all this gradually emerges. It would be a shame to say more but since there are spoilers all over the place, your best bet is to read the book, fast. I also listened to a couple of hours of the audio — it’s excellent, with a full cast including the author herself.
Ms. Atwood turns 80 in November. What do the kids say? Goals!