The launch of The Testaments, Margaret Atwood’s sequel to 1985’s The Handmaid’s Tale, was one of the most anticipated publishing events of the 21st century. When Amazon dispatched pre-ordered editions in advance of the publication date, their ‘technical error’ became front-page news. On the day of publication, bookshops hosted midnight events, at which attendees ate themed cupcakes and tried their hands at embroidery and placard-making. The official launch at the National Theatre, specially lit for the occasion in the cover’s palate of black, white, and poison-green, was live-streamed to over one thousand cinemas around the world.
All of which places an extraordinary burden of expectation on her new novel. Does it deliver? The answer is a complicated one. On the one hand, as a political document, offering reassurance and solace, it delivers superbly. The Testaments is, first and foremost, a manual of resistance – and, critically, not the lonely, internal resistance exhibited by Offred in The Handmaid’s Tale, but a type of resistance that is organised, articulated, and focused on the specific aim of destroying Gilead. The ambiguity and opacity of The Handmaid’s Tale – the sense that the reader has of groping alongside Offred for a foothold – is exchanged for clarity: it’s evident from the off that we’re here to discover how and why Gilead tumbles, and in that sense the book succeeds entirely, providing its readers first with a route map and secondly with hope.
Central to this is Atwood’s most dramatic step: the partial rehabilitation of the character of Aunt Lydia. In The Handmaid’s Tale, Lydia, with her hypocritical homilies and pseudo-pious acts of brutality, stands as the most potent embodiment of the repression, misogyny and violence of the regime. Here, however, Atwood furnishes her with a backstory to explain her reconfiguring as a fifth columnist, working covertly to bring the regime down. The novel intertwines three narrative strands, and Lydia’s – easily the most compelling – emerges through her memoir, written in secret and stashed in a hollowed-out copy of Cardinal Newman’s Apologia. Lydia, we learn, was a family court judge in her previous life; she ‘contributed to charities … voted in elections … held worthy opinions’. The scenes of her arrest and imprisonment, alongside hundreds of other professional women, and their degradation and torture are brilliantly horrifying, and in their wake her eventual decision to choose collaboration over death is horribly comprehensible. ‘I made choices,’ she says, in one of the novel’s crispest lines, ‘and then, having made them, I had fewer choices.’ If she isn’t entirely recognisable here as the woman who in The Handmaid’s Tale beats the soles of an escapee’s feet with steel cables and presides over a group execution as if she is doing something ‘generous, munificent’, she’s wholly convincing as a compromised, morally complex woman. Her ultimate decision to risk her life to topple the regime is both internally coherent and emotionally consoling. At the end of the day, her act implies, truth still matters, and good will ultimately triumph.
The other two narratives bolster this mood. Presented in the form of first-person witness testimonies, they map the parallel lives of two young women: one, Daisy, raised in Canada, the other, Agnes Jemima, in Gilead. Over the course of the novel – and as the result of an entirely foreseeable plot twist – their stories converge, and they come to play a pivotal role in the plot to destabilise the regime. While Agnes Jemima’s narrative offers new insights on Gilead from the perspective of someone who’s never known anything different, Daisy’s feels oddly attenuated; there’s little sense of the Canada she’s living in, other than in relation to Gilead, and when she is confronted with a series of tragedies and revelations, her reaction is only lightly sketched. It’s hard to escape the sense that she’s a plot device backfilled with personality – all structure, no character.
And this gets to the heart of why, while The Testaments is politically and emotionally satisfying, as a work of literature it has less to offer. The brilliance of The Handmaid’s Tale derived from its marriage of form and content: the world it created was unknown to us, and by offering us only Offred’s perspective on it, Atwood ensured that her sense of bafflement and vulnerability tangled with and amplified our own. The experience of reading it was that of a fly trapped in a web, trying to make sense of a terrifying new reality, unsure which direction danger will come from. In all of this, the verve of Atwood’s writing and the breadth and nuance of Offred’s internal life kept us reading. With The Testaments, though, we see the web from the outside; we’re the spider, not the fly. And while it’s satisfying to be able to spot at a glance where the web is weakest and watch the strands fray, the shift of perspective diminishes the richness and the sense of jeopardy. After the horrors of The Handmaid’s Tale, the ease with which Gilead is hobbled is unconvincing. In these unnerving times, we want to believe that facts can bring down tyrants, we want to feel that evil can be undone. But novels should tell the truth, and the truth is surely more complicated than that. While The Testaments might be the book we want, therefore, it may not be the book we need.