Less Imagination, More Elucidation | Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments

 

Illustration: Daphné Côté-Hallé – Les Microcosmes

Illustration: Daphné Côté-Hallé – Les Microcosmes
 

It is November 2018 and the wait is finally over: Margaret Atwood announces a sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale. A year later, The Testaments appears. Fans all over the world are ecstatic. Published thirty-four years after The Handmaid’s Tale, the new novel is met with almost unprecedented fervour. The book has already been shortlisted for the 2019 Booker Prize, this being the sixth Booker nomination for the Canadian author, who won the prize in 2000 for The Blind Assassin (Later edit: it won again—what a surprise!).


Blessed be the fruit!


Since Atwood’s novel was shortlisted even before being published, and, consequently, being read by a wider audience, the judges had taken a vow of silence, claiming that they couldn’t even tell their friends or family that they were reading it: “It falls to me to not tell you about The Testaments,” said Peter Florence, chair of the judging panel, while introducing the shortlisted books. He did mention, however, that Atwood has written “a savage and beautiful novel,” adding that “the bar is set unusually high for Atwood, and she soars over it.”


To start with, The Testaments is nothing like The Handmaid’s Tale. Readers who are on the lookout for yet another sublime example of classical dystopian literature will be completely disappointed. The Handmaid’s Tale earned a place in the history of literature for its ambiguous ending: “Whether this is my end or a new beginning I have no way of knowing,” says Offred, the novel’s main character, leaving the reader yearning for upcoming answers.

In a press release announcing her upcoming book, Atwood claimed that “[in] many ways, The Testaments is an answer to all the questions readers have been asking me about The Handmaid’s Tale over the years.” One may take advantage of this opportunity to add that every so often, some things are better left unanswered. There was such an aesthetic power in the ending of her previous novel that you would think Atwood must be a genius to come up with a dignified outcome. She wasn’t. She didn’t.


In the second novel, the author leapfrogs the action fifteen years after The Handmaid’s Tale, while also making sure to include some elements from the TV series, such as baby Nicole being smuggled to Canada. In this sense, the book does not really stand on its own, but rather relies on the reader having both read the previous novel and being up to date with the TV version. Whether that screams unoriginality or just it being (very) eclectic, there is no way of knowing.


There are some changes in terms of characters, as well. In The Testaments, Atwood strays away from a one-person narrative – as she previously offered only Offred’s claustrophobic outlook of the world around her - and moves towards a more elastic perspective, comprised of three different female voices from comparatively different backgrounds.

One of these characters is Aunt Lydia, whom readers have the privilege to observe in a more intimate, humane way. It is through her character that the reader is invited to have a closer look at the inner workings of Gilead. It is her character, as well, that makes this whole novel bearable. Her mature, eagle-eyed perspective stems from a peculiarly privileged position in an extremist patriarchal society, and she knows just how precarious that is: “Only dead people are allowed to have statues but, I have been given one while still alive. Already I am petrified.”


The other narrators are what appear to be two very distinct young women: Agnes, a pious and righteous girl born and raised in Gilead, and Daisy, a rather spirited girl raised in Canada. The rest of the novel is spent figuring out the possible connections between these three characters, which become so glaringly predictable that the readers don’t really have to do much work themselves.


Consequently, in The Testaments, Atwood leaves almost nothing to the imagination. She is spoon-feeding her readers with details to thirty-five-year-old questions that were better left unanswered. In the Handmaids’ Tale, we had Offred as our only confidant, and along with her, we would fear the worst and hope for the best. It was a way of always staying alert, which allowed readers to be emotionally invested in Offred’s narrative. The Testaments, on the other hand, takes a totally different approach and reads almost like an antidote to The Handmaid’s Tale: the gruesome satire of a chillingly misogynistic totalitarian state is now replaced by a brisk thriller unremarkably spiced up with some ostensible social commentary.

Furthermore, Atwood seems as if trying to please multiple audiences at the same time. On the one hand, there are those who have been waiting thirty-five years for a sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale. On the other hand, there are the TV fans, which may explain why, in some cases—such as the way in which the characters intersect—the book seems a bit too TV-ready. Last but not least, there are the prize judges. The result is quite preposterous.


Finally, despite the novel’s attempt to offer some (positive) closure on the calamities brought up by The Handmaid’s Tale and Atwood’s hints of a brighter future for us all, the feeling that the book leaves with you with upon finishing it is that something is irrevocably missing. The 1985 novel ends on a note of interrogation: “Are there any questions?” By answering these questions in The Testaments, Atwood did not do her readers a favour. She did not advance their understanding of Gilead. If anything, she lessened it.


If The Handmaid's Tale was a masterpiece, The Testaments is a misstep.


Praise be!