Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale published in 1985 was a hugely influential novel for me. I have re-read it more times than I can count. I watched the first season of the television series based on the book and have read the graphic novel version as well. The Handmaid’s Tale tells the story of Offred, a woman imprisoned in a future patriarchal, fundamentalist Christian nightmare. The Handmaid’s Tale has sold more than eight million copies worldwide.
The Testaments is Margaret Atwood’s newly published sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale. It is different from its predecessor in many ways. Let me mention three.
First of all, The Testaments features three narrators instead of just one and we are kept in suspense for quite some time as to how those narrators are connected to one another. The narrators’ voices are unique to their varying ages and life experiences and some critics say that means the sections by two of the younger narrators read more like chapters from a teen or middle-grade novel. That may be, but as someone who writes for that age group and realizes just how many adults are reading and appreciating teen and middle-grade novels these days, that isn’t a negative, but a positive about the book for me.
I am glad Atwood includes these young voices in The Testaments because as Greta Thunberg’s story has taught us, it is going to be young people who will change our world for the better. Their voices need to be heard and Atwood makes sure of that in her novel.
Secondly, The Handmaid’s Tale was a sobering kind of fatalistic read, and in 1985 its warning signs about how the religious right might come to denigrate and enslave women in the future was a compelling motivation for me to work actively for more gender equality in the workplace, in my church and in my community. The Testaments, current politics in the United States aside, has a more hopeful tone but does imply that things will probably get worse before they get better.
Finally, in The Handmaid’s Tale, we get only a cursory look at Aunt Lydia one of the older women tasked with training young handmaids for their roles as surrogate mothers for barren wives and their husbands. In The Testaments, we come to know Aunt Lydia in a whole new way. We learn about her accomplished past, the hardnosed and realistic way she deals with the present, and her rebellious hopes for future revenge.
The Testaments is a completely different kind of book than The Handmaid’s Tale and if you are expecting something similar you will probably be disappointed. But if you are open-minded and ready to experience something new from Canada’s most celebrated author you will enjoy the book as much as I did.